Dalmatians find their way home to Regent's Park

Toby Olié at work on one of the puppets for 101 Dalmatians at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

Toby Olié at work on one of the puppets for 101 Dalmatians at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre - Credit: Mark Senior

Toby Olié has the rare distinction of having played the front and back end of a horse.

Not any old pantomime nag, but the trailblazing puppet created for the stage adaptation of War Horse.

While training at the Central School of Speech and Drama, he joined a development workshop for Michael Morpurgo's novel. And he has gone on to make elephants and Orangutans for another Morpurgo tale Running Wild, Pinocchio for The National Theatre, a lion for the RSC, and everything else from Wind in the Willows to Alice in Wonderland.

Now, the Belsize Park puppeteer is facing his greatest challenge yet; putting scores of dogs, three cats, a fox, and Cruella de Vil's car on stage at Regent's Park Open air theatre for new musical 101 Dalmatians.

Kate Fleetwood as Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

Kate Fleetwood as Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre - Credit: Oliver Rosser and Feast Creative

"Puppetry is having such a renaissance in contemporary theatre but when I went to Central in 2003, there was just me," he says.

"A guest tutor had been working with Handspring (Puppet Company) on the horses for War Horse. I went to a development workshop then auditioned to be one of three human guinea pigs to be put into this horse. I was the back legs, then joined the team for the head of Topthorn. We had rotating puppeteers so I got to experience different characters and parts."

Olié's fascination with theatre and model making started young.

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"As a child I was always making shoebox theatres and papier mache volcanoes for my dinosaurs. You could argue I'm still in the Jurassic Park phase at the age of 37. I remember seeing an Usborne How To Make Puppets book and rushed home to make a dinosaur puppet from an egg box and an old jumper."

Making and performing with puppets, he says, sits "in the middle point between art and drama."

"Making this thing and exploring how it performs and comes alive are connected. Fundamentally what puppets and puppeteers do is show simple amazing everyday things as if for the first time. Everything a puppet does is a choice; mundane things like weight and gravity feel monumental. In the wake of shows like War Horse it's now part of audience's theatregoing palette."

If animation solved Disney's problem of creating all those dogs, this new version of Dodie Smith's book requires all 20 plus cast members to bring them to life.

"It's such a detailed, epic scale puppet story with all these dogs," he says. "I didn't want to do people in spotted costumes or just naturalistic lip synching. But how to find a puppy and dog language that's so theatrical we can have have our cake and eat it?"

The answer is to switch between a naturalistic dog mode when Pongo and Perdy are with their owners, and a mode where the puppeteers are the thought bubble for the dog.

"The puppeteers are the audience's way into seeing the dogs. We can hear what the dog is thinking via a live translation through the puppeteer. It's untrodden ground that requires the audience to use their imagination and be on side."

As for the puppets, as designer and maker he gives a lot of thought to breathing life into his creations.

"You look at where emotion shows itself in the animal. Does their tail show emotion or their ears? What traits are there in the breed so that instead of generic dog behaviour you have something that feels truthful? Dalmatians have a real athleticism and efficiency to them. With Pongo and Perdy. We have springs in their tails and puppeteers can control their ears so two puppeteers working in synch can share the emotions and character between them."

Smith's 1956 novel is set around Regent's Park, making Douglas Hodge and Johnny McKnight's musical almost site specific.

"Of all the places to do it, it's exciting to do it here," agrees Olié. "We start the story in the park where the dogs coordinate their owners meeting. Having real trees around them heightens the live aspect of quite stylised puppets."

Asked why the story - which sees fur-obsessed Cruella de Vil set her heart on a Dalmatian coat and kidnap Pongo and Perdy's puppies - has endured, he says: "It's about family and re-finding home."

"It feels timely to tell the story of a family that are split up by this evil force and find their way back to each other."

101 Dalmatians runs at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre from July 12 until August 28 openairtheatre.com/production/101-dalmatians