The Nutcracker, Coliseum, London

Scarfe throttles fantasy
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The Independent Culture

Poor English National Ballet. The company has a long history with The Nutcracker, which has been its Christmas bread and butter since the 1950s. The present production, new in 2002, is an unhappy attempt at an update. The dancers struggle to make anything of it.

The trouble starts with the designs. The political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe is known for savage caricatures, with swooping lines and vast noses. He isn't an obvious choice for the frost and sweetness of Tchaikovsky's score. His Nutcracker is in a softer mood, but it's still cartoony in the worst sense. Shapes are exaggerated, jokes are flat. Costumes are remarkably unflattering.

Scarfe, working with the choreographer Christopher Hampson, fails to come up with a coherent concept. The real world of the first-act party is as odd as the fantasy second act, with everybody in outlandish clothes and extinguishing wigs. Clara, the heroine, is a naive innocent in a synthetic henna wig. Her brother is dressed in baggy jeans, but the family still have a uniformed maid. There's no sense of time or place.

Minor characters are thin comic turns. The magician Drosselmeyer takes off the maid's vast spectacles - why, darling, you're beautiful - and dances with her. Then he sends her back to drudgery, untransformed. Grandpa, kitted out with green hair, kilt and zimmer frame, spends his time in seaside-postcard pursuit of a padded curvaceous blonde.

Even if they fend off Scarfe's designs, the dancers still have to cope with Hampson's choreography. He gives them classical steps, piled up step-for-note. It's often fussy and rarely musical. Hampson doesn't even keep the traditional duet, choreographed by Ivanov, for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier. This is watered-down Ivanov, with clumsy tweaks and digressions.

It's all pop, and it's all random: we can't take the heroine's story seriously. Hampson and Scarfe tend to forget about Clara after Act I. She falls in love with the Nutcracker Prince, then hands him over to dance with the Sugar Plum Fairy.

At this revival, there were signs of careful tinkering. Costumes have been adjusted, with less padding and more room to move. I think Hampson has left rather more Ivanov choreography in his duet. Most importantly, the dancers have put a brave face on it, performing full out. The Snowflakes have to burst out of a giant fridge, but they jump easily and high. Martin West conducted a lively performance by the English National Ballet orchestra.

On opening night, the Nutcracker was danced by Thomas Edur, ENB's most princely cavalier. The steps may be nonsense, but he yearns ardently through them. The dancing glows, taut line warmed by soft, full phrasing. His Sugar Plum, Agnes Oaks, is more brittle, but she dances with authority.

Alice Crawford is a lively Clara. She darts through Hampson's awkward steps, looking quick and eager. In this production, Drosselmeyer was originally danced by Irek Mukhamedov. The role is pumped up into a star part, with the magician bustling in and out of most scenes. Gary Avis is nimble and tireless, putting a bright spin on dreary material.

To 8 January (020-7632 8300)

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