The Nutcracker, Hippodrome, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture

There's a family feeling about Birmingham Royal Ballet's Nutcracker.

There's a family feeling about Birmingham Royal Ballet's Nutcracker. The company doesn't take this spectacular production on tour: it's a Nutcracker for the home audience, dedicated to the City of Birmingham and tailored to the broad stage of the Hippodrome theatre. Performances are sold out, and the dancers look lively and at ease.

Peter Wright's version of the ballet is traditional in outline, with tweaked details. The heroine Clara is now a dance student, her mother an ex-dancer. There are still children at the party, but most of the guests are Clara's fellow students.

Wright also beefs up the role of Drosselmeyer, the magician uncle who gives Clara her Nutcracker doll. The character now has extended conjuring scenes, from simple handkerchief tricks to a very satisfying magicked rat. He also directs the whole ballet, reappearing throughout the divertissement dances of the second act - the magic land is his kingdom now, no longer a Land of Sweets.

Most recent productions tinker with the Nutcracker's untidy plot. The trouble with Wright's alterations is that they go against Tchaikovsky's score which has insistent cues, events and characters precisely evoked. This Drosselmeyer keeps muscling in on music that doesn't belong to him. In trying to make sense of the drama, Wright just hasn't listened. He gives his Clara plenty of dancing, but he doesn't give her the emotional journeyat the heart of the music.

Still, this production has real visual flair. John F. Macfarlane's designs are stylised and naturalistic at once. The party scene has rich red walls and fabrics, patterned with cloudy shadows. Scenery is solid and three-dimensional, with curving staircase and tall windows.

There are oohs and gasps at this Nutcracker's transformation scenes. The Christmas tree doesn't just get taller. It grows sideways, the branches spreading out above the dancers' heads. The fireplace slides back - almost a waltz step - and sweeps back in, three times the size. Macfarlane's giant rats are dashingly 18th-century, in velvet coats and breeches. His Snowflake wood is a tracery of branches against a silvered sky.

Angela Paul makes a vivacious Clara, and Lee Fisher gives a snap to Drosselmeyer's magic tricks. Ambra Vallo is too doll-like as the Sugar Plum Fairy: she needs to slow down, to phrase her steps more grandly. Her prince, Dominic Antonucci, jumps strongly but needs more polish.

Silvia Jiminez is elegant as Clara's ballerina mother. Viktoria Walton, dancing the Columbine doll in the party scene, shapes her clockwork steps with witty attack.

Barry Wordsworth conducted the Royal Ballet Sinfonia in a gorgeous account of the score, with warm string playing and sparkling orchestral textures. The dancers brighten in response: the corps de ballet of flowers luxuriate in the finale.

To 15 December (0870 730 1234)

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