REVIEW: The Hundred and One Dalmatians presented by Chichester Festival Youth Theatre at the Festival Theatre

At rehearsal, Cameron Cragg (foreground) with members of the 101 Dalmatians company. Photo Mike Eddowes.
At rehearsal, Cameron Cragg (foreground) with members of the 101 Dalmatians company. Photo Mike Eddowes.

For a season that has been dominated by the most powerful of female performances, it was fitting that the 2014 finale should take the theme to new heights.

There is no more potent or sinister roles for an actress than that of the loathsome Cruella De Vil - whose very name conjures up both the evil and the cruelty of the devil himself.

This is the woman who determines to banish the feeling of cold once and for all by slaughtering a hundred Dalmatian puppies and having their fur turned into everything from coats to ear muffs.

Her excuse for this canine carnage is merely to keep warm, but the fire that she seeks is reminiscent of hell itself.

On the face of it, it’s a curious choice for a Christmas show.

But the Youth Theatre has always been brave - shunning traditional panto for some of the darkest children’s tales. Although this one has a happy ending.

The Witches and the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe have all pursued similar themes in previous years and all supremely well.

Yet this latest production is a particular triumph and a crowning glory for a mesmerising season which relaunched the theatre after a £22m Renew restoration.

There is always a temptation, of course, to be kind when reviewing a production packed with young amateurs.

But kindness is not required. The unvarnished truth is this is a masterpiece.

From the minimalistic set capturing the Dalmatian spots, to the vocals, choreography, and costumes, this is not merely youth theatre at its best - it is the Chichester Festival Theatre at its towering magnificence.

Add to all this the complication that the lead roles are performed on an alternating rota and this also becomes a logistical triumph.

There are too many great performances to name them all.

But one or two, on the night we reviewed, cannot pass without commendation.

Poppy Crawford simply owned the role of Cruella and exuded a stage presence that signals an actress of enormous potential. If we see her name hallmarking blockbusters of tomorrow then don’t be surprised.

Fred Davis at Pongo, father of the Dalmatians, had a joyous, energetic charisma that moved the entire production to a wholly professional level. He was a star.

A few other names to watch out for - Romina Hytten, Daniel Mears, Amber Wadey, Lucy Pratt, Ed Waller, Joseph Marchant, India Loseby, Beth Cave, Kai Terry and Riordan Kelly.

Tom Chown and Katie Morgan’s delight at playing the lazy bad un’s Amber and Bamber was infectious.

Liam Wright and Charlie Daniells who play Pongo and Cruella on rotation also featured in cameo roles of distinction on this occasion - as everything from the butcher’s dog to the cow - but even in these minor exchanges their performing qualities shone out.

Thanks to enormous supporting casts this was a stage extravaganza.

Writer Bryony Lavery and Director Dale Brooks have created one of the best Youth productions on record in a theatre transformed by the amazing Jonathan Church.

So forget traditional panto - live Christmas entertainment gets no better than this.