Christmas crackers

`The Nutcracker' has become a regular fixture of the festive season. But apart from giving parents some last-minute present ideas, does it have anything to offer?

They've been selling Christmas decorations for two months now, so it must be time to make the party bookings for the Nutcracker. But why do we go to see The Nutcracker every year? Tchaikovsky and Ivanov have a lot to do with it. It's a short, two-act job which makes good sense for those in the audience still wearing trainer pants or any ballet-hating members of the family who have been forcibly sedated and frogmarched into the stalls against their will. And there's a lot of shopping in it, too, usually of the tin soldier, china doll, jack-in-the-box variety (imagine your little girl's delight when you hand her a large wooden nutcracker instead of the Barbie horsebox she was holding out for). Has Christmas got too commercialised? Do Harrods gift-wrap?

Harrods, whose windows are currently stuffed to the gunwales with Sugar Plum Barbies, are, of course, sponsoring English National Ballet's new production of The Nutcracker - surely a sponsorship deal made in heaven. ENB (aka London Festival Ballet) has been manufacturing Christmas Nutcrackers since 1952. Although it has successfully added another sugar plum to its bread-and-butter repertoire in the crowd-pleasing shape of Alice in Wonderland, the company feels obliged to always keep the Nutcrackers in readiness on the sideboard. Alice's chief strength - hell, let's face it, its only strength - was the mouth-watering costume design by Sue "Rocky Horror" Blane, which looked as if someone had coloured in Tenniel's illustrations very, very neatly and then brought them to life. This bodes well for the ENB Nutcracker, but, then again, Sue Blane also designed the less-than-gorgeous frocks in Lord of the Dance...

ENB Nutcracker: Mayflower, Southampton 13-18 Oct (01703 711811) then touring to Liverpool, Manchester and London's Coliseum (0171-632 8300) 8 Dec-10 Jan