This puppyish, puppet-led musical based on Dodie Smith’s spotty dog story wins you over with sheer dazzle and bonkers invention. The music comes a poor second to the witty lyrics in Douglas Hodge’s adaptation, but the animation of the dogs by War Horse alumnus Toby Olié is uncanny. And Kate Fleetwood is scene-stealingly, scenery-chewingly hilarious as Cruella de Vil, an online influencer who’s taken Bimini Bon Boulash as her style inspiration.
Hodge and writer Johnny McKnight – working from an earlier stage adaptation by Zinnie Harris - update the story to contemporary London with mixed narrative results but to great comic effect. Those expecting a retread of the beloved 1961 Disney animation will be rudely jarred: there’s lots of bottom sniffing and fart gags here, plus an attempt to equate Cruella’s viciousness with the anti-immigration rhetoric of right-wing trolls.
Rather than Disney, the production echoes the fizz and physical elasticity of a Road Runner cartoon, courtesy of director Timothy Sheader and set and costume designers Colin Richmond and Katrina Lindsay. A madcap car chase, and the transformation of Cruella – eyeballs popping, limbs telescoping, tongue unrolling like a carpet – are laugh-out-loud high points.
A hectic dash across a busy road is cleverly evoked with skipping ropes. There are neat perspective switches between a tail-swishing puppet cat and the leather-clad version played by Grace Wylde. There’s a tap-dancing poodle and two boxing boxer dogs. Choreographer and movement director Liam Steel, working in tandem with Olié, fills the stage with a mass of hoofing, capering bodies, so that you can’t tell where the hounds begin and the humans end.
The puppies are simply but beautifully suggested by the cast manipulating yapping heads and wagging tails, and by four child actors playing escapees from Cruella’s lair, a nightmarish slaughterhouse sprouting hooks and blades. Parents Pongo and Perdita are given life by two operators each, their voices and back limbs supplied by Danny Collins and Emma Lucia. They’re elegant, eloquent creations, the doggy body language spot on, but it does sometimes look as if the rear operator is up to something bestial – and once you see that, you can’t unsee it.
Anyway, after a confused start the show gets into its stride, capering through songs with a dog’s-eye view (Bury That Bone, Turn Round Three Times) and spraying out gags.
Fleetwood, vamping it up in furs, spike heels, towering wigs and wind-tunnel makeup, unveils the storming singing voice not heard since Maria Friedman’s Old Vic production of High Society in 2015, in the second-act showstopper, Für Fur. Hodge’s cleverness deserts him in the mawkish anthem All Of Our Kisses, but by the end this musical’s visual flare, warmth and lunatic charm make you forgive the small messes it makes along the way.
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, to August 28; buy tickets here