The Nutcracker, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Sugar-free Nutcracker could be an acquired taste
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The opening front-cloth tells you what to expect, or rather what not to. It shows a giant etching of a young girl lying reading a book, her eyes starting out her head in fright. The top of her skull is in the form of a walnut, its shell cracked to reveal wrinkled matter inside. The other half of shell contains a man in a white coat tinkering with the brains of a baby. Before the end of Tchaikovsky's overture it's clear that at least one child's dreams on Christmas Eve will not be filled with sweets and toys.

There was no way Ashley Page, Scottish Ballet's new broom, was ever going to produce a standard, sugar-coated Nutcracker. He'd been hired for his contemporary take on ballet. His first programme as director (and this is only his second) contained very little ballet at all. Yet he knows he has to take the company's old constituency with him, so his Nutcracker is a calculating mix of old and new, or rather, old and older. For Page's main intervention is to re-attach the fairly bland ballet scenario of 1892 to the much darker stratum of story from which it came.

A murderous rodent, the disfigurement of a baby, curses, cures and final redemption through love make ETA Hoffmann's 1816 tale of Der Nussknacker und der Mausekönig a forerunner of Surrealism and the modern horror genre. Page and his designer Antony McDonald have carefully stitched these fantastical complications back into the fabric of the ballet while adding other more factual allusions to dark facets of human behaviour. The Stahlbaum household of Act I lives in 1920s Berlin, and the family party is full of things a child on the cusp of adulthood might find confusing. Maids in saucy outfits serve drinks and flirt with Grandpa, who is dressed as a German nationalist. The children's riding-crop wielding governess fights with Marie's lenient godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer. Worse, Marie is disconcerted by the resemblance of her own adolescent brother, Fritz, to the alluring prince in her story book.

All this is conveyed with economy and reasonable clarity through well-blended acting and dance. More unusually, other elements of the girl's mental life are flagged by cartoon etchings in the Weimar style: a disembodied hand, a giant rodent, and even, at one point, the face of Tchaikovsky peering through the window from outside. He is wondering what is being done in his name, perhaps.

The answer, by the end, is nothing very radical. While Page makes some effort to address the problematic balance of narrative and dancing (the slightly inebriated party guests of Act I perform the Act II national dances), he leaves the basic structure of the ballet intact. Dances arrive in the expected order to fulfil roughly the expected function, give or take a pair of spiteful snowflakes - a nice chilly touch.

Page's choreography - all his apart from Ivanov's formal pas de deux - is fluent, watchable, often pretty. Scottish Ballet's reduced size is a drawback. Though guest star Mara Galeazzi is magnificent, and Page deploys the company's forces with skill and tact, too often the big ensembles aren't big enough to meet the music's grandeur.

Also there is very little here to attract families: no jokes, no magic tricks, no acrobatics. Page has been daring, but has he been daring enough? He has alienated one section of audience while still making a sop to another. Is this really the hard nut he was after?

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

'The Nutcracker': Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131 529 6000), to Saturday; Theatre Royal, Glasgow (0141 332 9000), 30 December to 10 January; His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen (01224 641122), 13-17 Jan; Eden Court, Inverness (01463 234234), 20-24 Jan; touring to 7 February

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