The Nutcracker, The Coliseum, London

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The Independent Culture

When a company's in trouble, often the first thing that gets fixed is the corporate graphics. You can see it happening at English National Ballet: the stylish black-and-white photos outside the theatres, the sleekly re-designed programme booklets within. But it makes not a jot of difference to the product. Nothing is going to transform the company's current seasonal offering from gaudy Quality Street into a Chocolate Society hamper. The only solution is to ditch it.

I'm only guessing, but I'd bet a loud cheer went up last week over the Kensington mews where ENB has its base. Not only have the dancers just learnt that they are to feature in next July's Diana-fest (and in their best rep too: the terrific, heart-stopping entry of the 60-plus swans in Derek Deane's Swan Lake). Better still, they can now see an end to their annual sentence touring the Gerald Scarfe Nutcracker. The announcement of a brand new ballet, The Snow Queen, with choreography by Michael Corder and music by Prokofiev (principally his score from the ballet The Stone Flower) may upset some who see 57 unbroken Christmases of ENB Nutcrackers as an imperative to continue the tradition, but for the rest of us, it's a reprieve.

For the time being, though, audiences must make do with minor adjustments to the 2002 Nutcracker dominated by the hyperactive whimsy of a cartoonist. You might wonder how much there can be to go wrong in a ballet more or less prescribed by Tchaikovsky's most inventive score. You stop wondering when you read the dread words "concept by...". Had Gerald Scarfe ever been moved by this music he would not have dreamt of superimposing such vulgar ideas. I don't object to the Marge Simpson wigs and lurid colours so much as the insolence that blocks its ears to a depressed and ageing composer's yearning for lost innocence, and then fills the void with a series of bad jokes and crass caricatures with appeal to neither children nor adults.

The rot sets in early with a messy, confusing scene in which Clara (a brittle, disco creature in a Mary Quant wig) sits down on the pavement to point at an item in the toyshop window. And what the child wants, the child gets - no suggestion of wonder or discovery, or of growing up, or falling in love. All that's left of the original scenario, in fact, is a family party in which generational boundaries are mocked by the nimble enthusiasm of a Zimmer-framed grandpa for his Dolly Partonesque girlfriend. Though the joke was vile, I was grateful to Yat-Sen Chang's grandpa for injecting some gymnastic spark into an act otherwise short on choreographic interest.

Both Scarfe and his choreographer Christopher Hampson fare better on the set pieces. The climactic Snowflakes Dance that sends human frost particles flying from the door of a giant fridge stacked with cans of beer and the world's biggest milk carton is cleverly conceived and properly developed, and most of the divertissements in Act II are fine.

I especially liked the simplicity and vigour of the Russian dance - a solo for a dancing bear whose looped-fabric costume shimmered and shivered as he flung off spectacular virtuoso steps, earning Fernando Bufala the best applause of the evening. Startling too was the long-legged, statuesque Maria Ribo Pares in a Arabian dance that owes so much to Roland Petit's Folies Bergeres version that it ought to be paying him a royalty, but was nicely achieved nonetheless. I loved the moment when the ostrich-fan-bearing lackeys squat down behind them and exit like a row of fluffy ducks. But all those house-points were undone by a dull and stuffy Waltz of the Flowers that left me yawning and longing for the end.

And where does the Sugarplum Fairy fit into all this? By the time she appeared I had given up wondering, since "the concept" seemed to have elbowed so many Nutcracker essentials out of the frame. I can only suppose she and her cohort's purpose was to make up the quotient of classical dance, given the dearth of it elsewhere in this gaudy enterprise. English National Ballet? We could do with rather more of it in your next production, please.

London Coliseum, WC2 (0870 145 0200) until 24 Dec