The Nutcracker, Coliseum, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

It's amazing how much better English National Ballet's Nutcracker is this year. Gerald Scarfe's designs are as hectic as ever, though Christopher Hampson has sharpened up his staging. But the real change comes from the dancers, who have restored the required warmth and sparkle.

This company has gained in strength in the past 18 months. Mats Skoog, its last artistic director, left in 2004, citing the company's financial troubles, yet his last production was a Sleeping Beauty that showed his dancers' growing confidence. Under the new director Wayne Eagling, standards have continued to improve.

So have the finances. Eagling has announced a new three-act ballet for 2007, a Snow Queen with Prokofiev music, with choreography by Michael Corder; hardly radical, but the dancers will be able to work on a big new ballet.

Meantime, they're bringing this Nutcracker to life. For a Christmas show, this doesn't match ENB's lively Alice in Wonderland, but the performances are very winning. Scarfe, working in his usual style, loads the dancers with lurid colour and exaggerated costume. In the updated party scene, most of the adult women seem to be sexually repressed or repressive. The performances cut through all that sour bustle, giving us something simpler, more generous. Instead of the exaggerations, you notice the byplay between dancers - the sweep of movement, the exchanged glances.

The staging's strongest scene has always been its first shift to a fantasy world. The mouse battle, staged with Action Men and gas-mask-wearing mice, is done with gusto. The snowflakes, who jump out of a giant fridge, dance with pointed attack. The production's jokes just seem funnier.

Hampson's revisions are welcome. The Sugar Plum Fairy now has her own partner, so no longer needs to borrow the heroine's Nutcracker boyfriend. Sensibly, the role of the magician Drosselmeyer has been toned down.

Erina Takahashi is an eager Clara, Arionel Vargas a beaming Nutcracker. Daria Klimentova and Dmitri Gruzdyev give elegance to Hampson's very fidgety grand pas de deux. Fabian Reimair makes a characterful Drosselmeyer.

The divertissement is brightly danced. Begona Cao is delightful in Hampson's Arabian dance. Yat-Sen Chang does the Russian dance with great good humour, and there's a crisp Waltz of the Flowers.

To 24 December (08701 450 200)

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