Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker, Sadler's Wells, London

Marshmallow maidens and a very fluffy heart
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Given that The Nutcracker is often the first, sometimes only, dance work many people see, a single production can have a lot riding on it. Some nine years ago, my then seven-year-old boy was taken by his school to see the ballet. Anticipating a cosy post-show chat about the merits of its dancing snowflakes or Christmas party tricks, I was puzzled to draw a complete blank. He liked "the motorbike riders", he said.

It was a year later, 1994, when I realised that what he'd seen was a Nutcracker courtesy of the live-wire imagination of Matthew Bourne, then a barely known modern-dance maverick with a bent for injecting the classics with large doses of irreverent cheek. Since then, of course, the choreographer has become famous for his radical, male Swan Lake, a work which brought out a much darker strand of his genius. I'm sure Bourne's decision to revive his old Nutcracker makes sound commercial sense. It was a lot of fun a decade ago. And it still is fun, with 75 per cent of its choreography re-worked and spruced-up designs by Antony Ward. But it's hard not to feel faintly disappointed by the one-dimensionality of Bourne's response to the music. True, the score Tchaikovsky produced for Nutcracker has none of the tragic undertow of his Swan Lake. What it does hint at, though, in all its sweet melodiousness, is pangs of heartache over the fleetingness of childhood innocence. Bourne's upbeat and joke-laden staging romps on, oblivious. You laugh, but somewhere inside is a space unfilled.

Which is not to deny Bourne's serious flair for turning expectation on its head and shaking the goodies from its pockets. His Act I children's party happens in a bare Victorian orphanage, with a dead Christmas tree, a grim inspection by the governors, and second-hand presents that are no sooner given than locked in a cupboard. Typical of Bourne, the Act I dances are packed with genuine childish ebullience: girls intent on billowing their skirts, boys jumping so hard as to make a hole in the floor, or twirling their partners with intent to topple. The one set-piece with any nod to traditional prettiness has the orphans swooping about with streamers made of loo roll.

Design-wise, the transformation scene is impressive, as the branches of the now-giant discarded tree crash through the window and a huge crack rents the orphanage walls. Narrative-wise, though, it is a muddle. I am still not quite sure whether the children are liberated by Clara's ventriloquist puppet (who with his peculiar limp hardly looks strong enough to break out of a paper bag) or her fellow orphans' revolt against the brilliantly ghastly Dr and Mrs Dross.

At this point I sensed Bourne fighting against the contours of the music rather than being inspired by them. Hardly surprising, when you consider that in Nutcracker, more than any other score, Tchaikovsky worked to a highly specific scenario. In the battle scene, you hear battalions of toy soldiers lining up as the music works its way doggedly through the key changes, you hear scuttling mice feet and even piccolo rodent shrieks. Bourne's response – a lot of kids zooming about on iron beds – fails to hitch a ride on the music's grand militaristic climax and thus looks rather arbitrary.

Act II is more self-contained, with its neat divertissement numbers, and here Bourne's youthful imagination found its mark. Not only are the guests at Princess Sugar's wedding dressed like sweets (including a fetching quintet of marshmallow Tara Palmer Tomkinsons, and a trio of oikish gobstoppers), but they communicate by tasting one another. It's probably safe to say that of all today's dance-makers, only Matthew Bourne could convincingly build an entire ensemble number around the action of licking the dancer in front.

The cast for this production (Bourne's new company New Adventures) is not large, and he works hard to make it seem bigger. The skating scene inspired by Ashton's Les Patineurs is a particular triumph, as is the Busby Berkeley-style set-piece danced on a giant wedding cake. Ultimately, though, Bourne ducks out of addressing the true heart of Nutcracker: the heart-wrenching, wobbly grandeur of the final pas de deux, which he replaces with busy plot business. It was that, I think, as well as the half-size (and horridly amplified) Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, that left me feeling, though well-entertained, just a little short-changed.

j.gilbert@independent.co.uk

'Nutcracker': Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (020 7863 8000), to 25 Jan

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