Nutcracker! Sadler's Wells, London

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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 classical ballets, made before the huge success of his Swan Lake. But this latest revival has lost its spontaneity. There's too much mugging - one finds exaggeration everywhere.

Bourne's version starts at Dr Dross's Orphanage for Waifs and Strays, a bleakly Dickensian institution. The children, danced by adults, are preparing for the visit of the orphanage governors. Christmas decorations are doled out grudgingly; the Christmas tree is a dead, 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. Meanwhile Fritz and Sugar, Dr Dross's ghastly children, gloat over their real toys.

Bourne is very good at matching all this to Tchaikovsky. So much of the music was written to accompany action, and it's funny how well it fits Bourne's story. But the action is weakened by overplaying. The orphans are all individualised, and rather too keen to let you know it. Darren Fawthrop and Annabelle Dalling, as Dr Dross and his wife, are frightfully keen to be funny.

Even so, the references and the set-pieces stand up. Nutcracker! lets you in on its jokes. The Snowflake scene is reinvented with skaters. The girls are dressed like Sonja Henie, the 1940s ice star, in fur-trimmed hats and skirts. As they hold their skating poses, their partners flap their skirts to suggest how fast they're going.

Tchaikovsky's first act demands action, which suits Bourne's gift for dance narrative. But the second was written to accompany dances. It's hard to keep the story going, and the bigger dances start to look thin. In Bourne's ballet, Clara (Etta Murfitt) dreams of an escape from the orphanage with the transformed 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. Ward's orphanage features a Busby Berkeley wedding cake. Dancers are dressed as liquorice allsorts, marshmallows, gobstoppers.

It all 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 with the wrong girl. And in this 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 cleverly constructed, and charms its audience regardless. It is still witty and well-executed, but has lost some heart.

To 24 January (020-7863 8000)

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