Though English National Ballet's new Nutcracker is a long-awaited production, it seems to have been rushed on to the stage. It has handsome designs, Tchaikovsky's score and some strong dancing, but suffered a case of first-night nerves. Some dances were under-rehearsed; at least one special effect went awry. The production and company need to take a deep breath and calm down.
This new version, by the company's director Wayne Eagling, finally replaces the much-criticised 2002 production designed by Gerald Scarfe. Compared to Scarfe's exaggerations, Eagling's looks traditional. If Scarfe was a millstone round the neck of the last production, Peter Farmer's designs are the strongest element of this new version. The party guests are elegantly Edwardian, with floaty dresses and neat tailoring. Farmer's mice are very satisfying, with sleek heads and cruel noses. The national dancers are stylishly dressed.
Eagling's storytelling is often fussy. Many productions make the child Clara grow up into the Sugar Plum Fairy, while the heroic Nutcracker doll becomes her cavalier. Weirdly, Eagling keeps switching back and forth between Vadim Muntagirov's prince and Junor Souza's Nutcracker. It's confusing – and since Souza is buried under a Nutcracker mask, it's hard for the audience to engage with him. The plot has never been The Nutcracker's strong point; it fizzles out in the second act. Even so, Eagling's puppet theatre makes a blank location for the divertissement dances. The more simply he stages these numbers, the better they are.
In an evening of jitters, Lowri Shone was a confident child Clara. Her grown-up equivalent, Daria Klimentová, was a crisp Sugar Plum, but she and Vadim Muntagirov were tense in Eagling's version of the traditional Ivanov pas de deux. Their solos were better, with soaring jumps from him and taut line from her.
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