Nutcracker!, Sadler’s Wells, London


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The Independent Culture

Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! was his first update of a classic ballet.

Created in 1992, before Swan Lake made his name internationally, Bourne’s Nutcracker is a frothy confection, bouncing along with witty references and speedy storytelling. This revival has come up brighter than ever, with strong performances from the whole cast.

Throughout, Bourne and his collaborators give the traditional story a twist. It opens in Dr Dross’s grim Orphanage for Waifs and Strays, designed by Anthony Ward as a stark black and white world, all crooked angles and looming furniture.

The orphans are adults in drab clothes – all individually characterised, with their own friendships and yearnings. They’re forced to watch while Sugar and Fritz, Dr Dross’s ghastly children, are given Christmas presents and treats. The orphans eventually get broken-down toys – including a Nutcracker, which looks like a ventriloquist’s dummy, for the heroine Clara (a warm performance by Hannah Vassallo). When the Nutcracker is broken, twin orphans stage an operation scene, miming putting on gloves and surgical mask before very seriously putting the doll’s arms back on.

The staging is full of clever detail. The snow scene becomes a skating dance, with dancers in snuggly 1940s jumpers. They hold skating poses, and gently flap their skirts to suggest how fast they’re travelling.

After the monochrome orphanage, the second act moves to a stupendously pink Sweetieland. Ward’s designs include a giant cake, with a Busby Berkeley-style number staged on its many pink layers, and lurid candy costumes for the divertissements. The Spanish dancers are now liquorice allsorts; the mirlitons number is danced by marshmallow girls, nodding their heads in wonderful feathered hats. 

Tchaikovsky’s music for The Nutcracker puts all the story in the first act, all the dancing in the second. The drama comes naturally to Bourne, with his gift for character comedy. In the past, I’ve found his second act thinner; he’s not a dancey choreographer. At this revival, his company New Adventures give the second act numbers a wonderful sweep and confidence. They swoop through the Waltz of the Flowers, Sweetieland inhabitants licking each other. All the divertissement soloists have fun.

I still struggle with Bourne’s staging of the grand pas de deux. Tchaikovsky’s grandest music is given to Sugar, the heroine’s bitch rival – which just feels wrong, especially since Sugar isn’t humanised by the process. Ashley Shaw is an icy-sweet Sugar, with Chris Trenfield is Dominic North is splendidly sulky as Fritz. This revival opens New Adventures’ 25th anniversary year: they’re in fine shape.