English National Ballet might not have known what they were letting themselves in for when they gave caricaturist Gerald Scarfe carte blanche to design their new Nutcracker, but they were right about one thing: it isn't saccharine and it isn't dull.
Given that the company – virtually single-handed – has made an institution of The Nutcracker in this country, mounting the ballet every Christmas for more than half a century and changing its look every six years or so, it feels some obligation to shake things up. Yet it also has its bedrock audience of ballet purists to consider. The peculiar, sometimes uneasy, achievement of Nutcracker's latest incarnation – design and "concept" by Scarfe, choreography by 29-year-old Christopher Hampson – is that it really does do both.
The original story, as well as Tchaikovsky's tirelessly scintillating score, remain intact. Hampson's steps are fully classical yet fresh, bright and – more's the point – abundant. Both Clara and Drosselmeyer are proper dancing roles which means that the party scene, as well as the traditionally more dancey Act Two, is larded with choreographic interest. Gratifyingly, he pushes the right buttons in all the right places: heart-thumping romance in two soaring pas de deux, virile virtuosity for the Prince's solos, hold-your-breath fragility for Sugar Plum.
All credit to Hampson's craft that its subtleties speak through the megaphone onslaught of Scarfe. Loudest are his party-guest caricatures including a bishop, a Dolly Parton consort for grandpa and social weirdos in wigs that out-coif Marge Simpson. While I do feel someone should have vetoed Scarfe's cumbersome idea of setting the entire show inside a picture book, the sheer energy, even vulgarity, of his visual style acts like a slug of schnapps in fruit punch. It also inspires Hampson: hilarious acrobatics for grandpa and his Zimmer frame; the snowflakes swirling out of a giant fridge.
Poignancy is absent, however, and a darker element of mystery too. But for fine dancing and a pop at traditional prettiness, it certainly does the business. And ENB's orchestra, under Martin West, gives the best account of the score I've heard this year.
Meanwhile at Covent Garden, family groups are being catered for in William Tuckett's Wind in the Willows – a music-and-dance version of Kenneth Grahame's book.
Nostalgia apart, this is hardly obvious material for ballet (how does a badger dance?). But Tuckett's laid-back inclusiveness – allowing spoken narrative, plenty of non-dance acting, and even a bit of light-operatic song – squeezes the thing into service, just about.
In any case, the Quay Brothers' clunky set doesn't leave room for shaking much of a leg. I'm mystified that so much space is given to roof timbers and furniture, when most of the story takes place on a riverbank. But then, so much suspension of disbelief is required to meet an amphibian Jeremy Clarkson with a full set of points on his licence, that such quibbles hardly signify.
The animals are the best thing about it: Adam Cooper's grimy, grouchy Badger, Will Kemp's gallant but terminally dim Ratty, and most especially Matthew Hart's maniacal rubber-ball of a Toad, who rearranges his mouth into so permanent a gaping fly trap that he'll need an orthodontist by the end of the run.
Continuous music comes via a double-decker orchestra ranged on both sides of the auditorium, and this does give problems despite forceful conducting from Yuval Zorn. The score is by Martin Ward "after" George Butterworth, whose ultra-lyrical, cowpat style piles on the Englishness like gloops of dairy spread. I could have wished for more silences, not least so I could hear more of Andrew Motion's narrative text. This runs the gamut of English pastiche from fruity Keatsian assonance to Betjeman dum-di-dum, and is best in descriptions of landscape – "the fields lie soft as blankets on a bed". Anthony Dowell has a nice, unaffected delivery, but they do need to turn his sound up a bit.
Like the book, the performance is charmingly low-tech, but there are memorable effects. Children will love the drifts of "real" snow that settle gently on the front dozen rows. I did too. And I stuck out my tongue to catch them.
'Nutcracker': Coliseum, London WC2 (020 7632 8300), to 4 Jan; 'Willows': Linbury, ROH, LondonWC2 (020 7304 4000), to 22 Dec
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