Nutcracker, Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

Tchaikovsky's magical turn
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The Independent Culture

Six production companies are listed for Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! at Sadler's Wells; is this a record? Well, it's a big show, running for seven months in London and on tour. Too bad Tchaikovsky doesn't get royalties; this version competing with both Royal Ballet companies, English National Ballet, and what seem like dozens of eastern bloc troupes touring the regions, would have brought him a pretty penny. And I'll bet they'll all be full.

The music, as always, is the most certain draw. Upholding Tchaikovsky for Bourne's staging is the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra; a bit rumbustious, maybe, under Brett Morris's direction, but this score never misses with its unfailing melodic invention and varied emotion. Bourne's comment is that "its magic turns us all into kids again".

What can too easily fail is what you see on stage. Bourne has been brilliantly clever about this. First he devised, with Martin Duncan, a highly ingenious reinterpretation of Petipa's unsatisfactory original scenario; starting it in a Dickensian orphanage makes for much more fun and contrast. And drawing on movies (always a great thing with Bourne) to inspire his Sweetieland is ideal. Anthony Ward's designs are perfect for the job, too.

One small reservation: Dr Dross's plastic coat as boss of the orphanage looks anachronistic (and this character seems to have lost much of his comedy besides). Everything is simple but full of imaginative detail, and it all works together. This is, impressively, Ward's fifth current London hit, with Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night at the Donmar, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and My Fair Lady.

Choreography? No, that's where Bourne falls down; he simply doesn't have the craft to live up to Tchaikovsky at what should be the high points, above all the great pas de deux near the end – but plenty of other men have fallen down over this, even if not quite so blatantly. But production, yes, and character and liveliness: those are the things Bourne does well.

The revolt and escape of the waifs and strays, their journey over the frozen lake, are great. In Sweetieland, the Angels in blue pyjamas are appealing, the Marshmallow girls deliciously cute in their pink mini-tutus (Sonja Henie style), and the three Gobstopper boys show enormous zest – the one in the red shirt has sensational jumps. And you have to see the way Bourne makes a dozen or so dancers look like a huge Busby Berkeley cast draped around a giant wedding cake.

Etta Murfitt is again most affecting as the (mostly) sad heroine Clara, although she makes maybe a somewhat substantial starveling; as in Bourne's first 1992 staging, her cheerfully smug rival Sugar is again Saranne Curtin. All the roles have two casts anyway, and it is the animation of the whole ensemble that matters most. Now can they stay as crisply together for the next seven months? Well, Tchaikovsky will help them more than a little.

To 25 Jan (020-7863 8000), then touring