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The Hundred and One Dalmatians: Birmingham Rep’s dazzling feat of canine puppetry

The cast rehearsing with multiple puppets. Photo: Photo: Birmingham Rep

Birmingham Rep is adapting Dodie Smith’s much-loved book for its seasonal show. Its director and designers tell Nick Smurthwaite how a cast of puppeteers is bringing a plethora of pooches to life

The time-honoured theatrical trope about not working with animals and children takes on a whole new dimension with Birmingham Rep’s forthcoming stage adaptation of Dodie Smith’s children’s classic The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Surely no director or designer, however gifted and ingenious, is capable of delivering a show in which that many canines are realistically depicted on stage?

Director Tessa Walker and designer Jamie Vartan had other ideas. “If you’re selling a show called The Hundred and One Dalmatians you must deliver on that title during the evening,” says Walker, associate director of the Rep, now on her third successive Christmas show. “I don’t want to feel I’ve let the audience down.”

For many, Dodie Smith’s tale of the rescue of 101 Dalmatians from the evil clutches of Cruella de Vil is familiar from the 1956 Disney animation and the 1996 live action film starring Glenn Close and Jeff Daniels, which mixed live dogs with Jim Henson-style animatronic ones.

Discussions between Walker, Vartan and former War Horse puppeteer Jimmy Grimes quickly ruled out real dogs. Children dressed as dogs, animatronics and projection were also out. They eventually agreed that the solution was mechanical puppets, operated by members of the 14-strong cast.

“Tessa said early on that she really wanted to see 101 Dalmatians on stage at one or two points during the evening,” says Grimes, who now runs his own puppetry company with Andy Brunskill.

“So it was my job, along with Jamie, to work out how we were going to do it. The challenge was conceptual as well as technical. You can come up with any number of ideas on paper but puppetry is a physical thing, so there has been a lot of experimentation and modification during the rehearsal process.”

The design for the show is very much built around accommodating the puppies. “The concept was quite abstract at first, playing around with ideas of perspective and scale, then became more literal as we got further into the process,” says Vartan.

“I did watch the Disney cartoon before I started work on it, and it was really helpful, if I’m honest. I was very interested in the way they’d styled it, how painterly it was – you could almost see the brush-strokes – and the pastel colours. The thing about animation is your imagination can go wherever it wants, so in the final car chase Cruella turns into this weird, abstract creature. I’ve tried to make my design a bit like a 3D drawing, quite playful, quite sketchy, with pastel colours, using painted backcloths of the London skyline and the countryside.”

One advantage of doing a large-scale show like this at Birmingham Rep is that its in-house resources are on a par with those of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National.

Walker says: “You feel very spoilt at the Rep because the technical and production resources here are incredible. We’ve got a paint workshop and set-builders on site, wardrobe and wigs, sound and lighting, as well as long-serving technical and production people who all give you the confidence to feel you will find answers to any problems thrown up by a show on this scale. There is just so much expertise and experience in the building.”

No doubt Walker is also buoyed up by the knowledge that her two previous Christmas shows at the Rep – A Christmas Carol in 2013 and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2015 – were both critical and commercial successes. Indeed the puppet-maker she worked with to create Aslan the Lion, Jo Lakin, has come back to work on The Hundred and One Dalmatians with Grimes.

In The Stage’s review of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe [1], Diane Parkes described Aslan as the show’s “piece de resistance whose forbidding stature, undulating movement and realistic head movements evokes the animal might of War Horse [2]”.

It is quite likely that without the worldwide success of War Horse and The Lion King that Birmingham Rep would never have considered anything as ambitious as a puppet-led The Hundred and One Dalmatians in the first place.

“Before War Horse and The Lion King, puppetry was seen in the UK as something for kids,” says Grimes. “Those two shows changed all that and took puppetry to a different level. They were the catalyst for training a whole generation of puppeteers, makers and technicians. There is definitely an appetite for spectacular puppet shows now.

“What’s nice for me about working on The Hundred and One Dalmatians is to be involved in the whole production and design process, rather than being brought in to direct some puppetry sequences, which is how it normally works.

“The creative demands of the show have been immense, probably as great as War Horse in some ways, because you have to strike a balance between the numbers of dogs and puppies with the need to engage with their story emotionally. There has been a lot of playing around with how to reflect their personalities by the way they can be mechanically manipulated.”

The fact that Grimes is also responsible for training most of the 14-strong cast of actors-turned-puppeteers intensifies his role even further.

He says, “Nearly all the cast are involved in working the puppets, and the Rep is big on diversity and inclusivity, so quite a few cast members didn’t have any experience of puppeteering at the start. The biggest problem has been focusing on the narrative when there is so much happening on stage. The challenge is always to use puppetry to tell the story in an exciting way.”

At the time of our conversation, Walker was still in the process of working out exactly how many fully functioning canine puppets would be required. “We have about 20 dog puppets in rehearsal, but we’re having a lot more made for those moments when the audience has to believe there are 101 on stage. Jamie has created the design to give the illusion there are more puppies on stage than there are actually are, so you’ll have little tails and heads visible and animated, but not the whole puppy.

“We have a good mix of experienced puppeteers and those who are learning as they go along. Obviously War Horse has been incredibly helpful in swelling the number of people involved in puppetry in the UK. What we’re anxious to navigate is having all these people on stage, some of whom are meant to be ‘invisible’ to the audience. The puppeteer’s art of not being seen is an extraordinary skill at its best.”

To complicate matters even further there is a four-strong band on stage throughout the show, which is why Walker is grateful that the Rep’s stage is the second largest in the country after the National Theatre’s Olivier.

If it all sounds rather stressful, Walker appears to be relishing every moment. “Actually it’s been really good fun,” she says, and seems to mean it. “I’m quite well organised and I like to have everything in place before we start. The amount of forward-planning was staggering.

“Because I’ve done other Christmas shows at the Rep, I know what the audience asks of us. The aim is to make something that works for both adults and children that’s big and magical and Christmassy.”

The Hundred and One Dalmatians runs at Birmingham Rep [3] from November 30 to January 13, with press night on December 5