UNSPEAKABLE evil comes to the Nuffield theatre, Southampton, this week - but it's all in the name of festive family fun.

From Thursday, the theatre hosts its annual Christmas production, The 101 Dalmatians, the classic tale of doggy kidnap.

Cruella de Vil, the society villainess who plots to turn an innocent brood of Dalmatian puppies into a luxurious fur coat, promises to make a thrilling alternative to the traditional pantomime dame. For actress Elizabeth Counsell the part offers a rare chance to pull out all the stops in a portrayal of undiluted nastiness.

"I've played Lady Macbeth before - she was quite evil. At least Cruella doesn't want to kill any people," said Elizabeth, probably best known for her roles in the Eighties sitcom Brushstrokes and the Tesco TV ads, in which she plays Prunella Scales' neighbour Mrs Thompson.

"I haven't done a Christmas show for a very, very long time. My father used to run the Theatre Royal in Windsor an incredibly long time ago and I used to do pantomimes there.

"This show will be a nice contrast to pantomime. It certainly gets you in the mood for Christmas, though. It's got lots of children in it."

Elizabeth will be spending Christmas - all two days of it - at home in London.

"I'll get Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off this year. I don't quite know what's going to happen yet. I know you're supposed to have done your Christmas shopping by June, but I just haven't had a chance to do anything this year."

As any actor will tell you, each role presents its own challenges. Cruella de Vil is no exception.

"I'm still trying to find the voice I want for her," admitted Elizabeth. "I had a nice morning this morning learning the little songs that are in it with the musical directors. They aren't huge Shirley Bassey numbers, but they're great fun."

Although the play doesn't feature any real canine thespians, it must, as the title suggests, have one of the highest dog counts of any show. Is Elizabeth a dog fan - or would she rather turn them into a fur coat, like Cruella?

"I haven't got any pets, I'm afraid.

"I'd love to get a pussy cat, but the trouble with being an actor is you have to suddenly leave them."

The 101 Dalmatians is at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton, from Thursday until January 11. For tickets and information, call the box office on 023 8067 1771.