Nutcracker! Sadler's Wells, London

A bit over-indulgent, but what do you expect from a Christmas confection?
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The Independent Culture

It can be strange to come back to a long-running show. Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! has become a regular Christmas treat at Sadler's Wells. It's the first of his revised classic ballets, made before the huge success of his Swan Lake. It has kept most of its virtues - the intelligent direction, Anthony Ward's brilliant designs, its sheer popularity - but exaggeration has got into the latest revival. There's too much mugging, too many over-emphasised jokes.

Bourne's version starts at Dr Dross's Orphanage for Waifs and Strays, a bleakly Dickensian institution. The children, danced by adults, are prepared for the visit of the orphanage governors. Christmas decorations are doled out, grudgingly; the Christmas tree is a tinselled twig. They're given second-hand toys, which are snatched away as soon as the governors leave, and put through dance and keep-fit routines. Fritz and Sugar, Dr Dross's ghastly children, gloat over their own real toys.

Bourne is very good at matching all this to Tchaikovsky. So much of the music was written to accompany action, and the joke is how well it fits Bourne's story. That keep-fit dance juggles orphans, governors, dumb-bells, skipping ropes and exercise hoops; the mimed actions land smartly on the music.

It's weakened by overplaying. The orphans are all individualised, and rather too keen to let you know it - those interactions no longer look spontaneous. Darren Fawthrop and Annabelle Dalling, as Dr Dross and his wife, would be funnier if they didn't make such a point of it. Even so, the references and the set-pieces stand up. This Nutcracker! lets you in on its jokes, and allows you to enjoy them. The Snowflake scene is reinvented with skaters, holding a pose to suggest gliding over the ice. The girls are dressed like Sonja Henie, the 1940s ice star, in fur-trimmed hats and skirts. As they hold those elegant skating poses, their partners flap their skirts to suggest how fast they're going.

The second half is harder to bring off. Tchaikovsky's first act demands action; his second was written to accompany dances, and it's hard to keep the story going. In Bourne's version, Clara (Etta Murfitt) dreams an escape from the orphanage with the Nutcracker doll, only to see him lured away by Sugar (Anjali Mehra).

The divertissement at the Kingdom of Sweets is now the celebration of Sugar's marriage, with Clara desperately trying to sneak in to the party. The squint lines of Ward's orphanage are replaced by a Busby Berkeley wedding cake. National dancers are dressed as liquorice allsorts, marshmallows, gobstoppers.

It works less well as Tchaikovsky becomes more serious. By the time we reach the grand pas de deux, the music written for the Sugar Plum Fairy, we don't want to see the hero still in love with the wrong girl. The interruptions of Clara and the cupids do catch a yearning note in the music, but it still feels wrong. And in this more self-conscious performance, you don't get the great rush of relief when Clara wakes up in the orphanage to find the Nutcracker in her bed.

Bourne's show is strongly constructed, and charms its audience regardless. It's still witty and well-executed, but it's lost some heart.