Nutcracker!, Sadler's Wells, London

This Matthew Bourne revival confirms his reputation but leaves a small space unfilled
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The Independent Culture

Innocence is a fragile commodity, and even stories about the loss of it must be handled with care. Little wonder that few theatre and dance makers are willing to deal with it head-on, preferring to adopt an adult knowingness. The Nutcracker's history of performance in the West dates back a scant 60 years, yet already by 1967 Rudolf Nureyev had produced a sub-Freudian version, with an ageing Drosselmeyer morphing into the stallion prince to claim Clara's affections.

Even the 19th-century-style revival currently at the Royal Opera House tweaks the focus away from childhood, while English National Ballet's production peoples the first-act family party with mad Gerald Scarfe grotesques.

Of course there was Disney, who in his 1940 Fantasia simply took mushrooms and flowers, and touched them with Tchai-kovsky's magic, but he was dealing with the contracted Nutcracker Suite, which doesn't bother with narrative.

Only two revisionists to my knowledge have had the nerve or the skill? to address the innocent heart of the ballet while appealing principally to adults. It's a paradox that both are also inspired parodists: one of them is Matthew Bourne.

What's interesting about Bourne's Nutcracker! (revived at Sadler's Wells before a 15-venue UK tour hurrah!) is that it is early Bourne, pre-dating his famous Swan Lake. That work brought out his bent for psychological depth.

In Nutcracker!, his approach was straightforward. It's still a story dominated by children and sweets, but minus the thing that gives most Nutcrackers their cosiness: domestic security and family love.

His children's party happens in a bare Dickensian 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.

The inventive Act I dances have a genuine childish boisterousness: girls intent on billowing their skirts, boys jumping hard enough to crash through the parquet, or twirling their partners with malevolent intent.

The one set-piece with any nod to traditional prettiness has the orphans swoop about with streamers of loo roll. The transformation scene is particularly strong (full marks to designer Anthony Ward) as Clara's now-human-sized ventriloquist's puppet lurches out of the cupboard and huge cracks rend the walls of the orphanage.

I've often mused on the difficulty, nowadays, of inducing the mix of fear and wonder 19th-century audiences would have known in the theatre.

Today, with CGI rampant in the cinema, a tree that grows is no novelty. It's the unpredictability of this nutcracker substitute, with his Frankenstein-like bulk and clumsiness, which wreaks terror among the orphans and sends a genuine frisson into the stalls. Yet how droll that the dummy's plastic head looks just like Matthew Bourne.

Not everything is as transparent. I am still unsure whether the children are liberated by Clara's puppet or by the orphans' revolt against the brilliantly ghastly Dr and Mrs Dross. What's more, the battle-scene climax of kids zooming about on iron beds, though fun, flagrantly disregards the detail of Tchaikovsky's militaristic climax, its Borodino-like organisation of key changes, its piccolo suggestion of rodent shrieks.

Act II, with its neat, self-contained numbers, gives Bourne's imagination its chance to fly.

Not only are the guests at Princess Sugar's wedding dressed as sweets (including a sextet of marshmallow Paris Hiltons that made me laugh out loud), but they communicate by tasting one another. Only Mat-thew Bourne could build a convincing "Waltz of the Flowers" from a motif of licking sticky fingers.

You laugh, and you thoroughly enjoy and yet, finally, Bourne's choreography gives out on you.

He simply ducks out of addressing the heart-wrenching grandeur of the final pas de deux, replacing it with larky plot business. It was that, I think, as much as the half-size, amplified, orchestra, that left me with a small space unfilled.

'Nutcracker! (0844 412 4300) to 20 Jan, then touring until May 2008.

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