Any company toying with the idea of staging a Nutcracker in which the designer is the lead player has two dire warnings before them to contemplate. The Russian illustrator Mikhail Shemiakin's version for the Kirov Ballet (performed this month in Paris) is a self-indulgent disaster, and now here comes English National Ballet's, designed by the illustrious cartoonist Gerald Scarfe.
It might seem like a masterly wheeze to bolster the lop-sided 19th-century story and patchwork choreography with a funky artistic angle, but a big name whose normal habitat is paper or canvas does not necessarily guarantee satisfying theatre. Scarfe has worked for the stage before, but not for ballet; which would be fine, if the results were worth the detour, let alone the journey. But his concept of a giant storybook that comes alive kills the ballet stone dead. The crude contours and primary colours belong to the culture of three-year-olds and have no connection with adults (who, after all, are also watching).
Indeed, they run completely counter to the poetry and underlying melancholy of Tchaikovsky's music. His caricatural characters, dressed in a clashing mix of colours and outrageous shapes, manage to provoke only a passing snigger. Ms V Aggra and the randy Grandpa, for example, fail to engage our empathy or interest because they have no visible personality.
A similar two-dimensionality robs Drosselmeyer of his usual fascinating ambiguity, where, as suggested by the music, a slightly sinister strangeness infuses his benevolence. Instead, as played here by Irek Mukhamedov, he looks something like Gary Glitter (an unfortunate parallel, surely, for this ballet) but comes across as boringly, emptily benign.
For the decor, Scarfe similarly strains to link up with contemporary reference points: hence the terrorist mice, as previously reported in outraged newspaper articles; hence the giant freezer door, which opens to let out gusts of icy air and dancers for the Snowflakes scene. Because the sets have such simplistic outlines, they fall short of any sense of magnificence or beauty. There are more glamorous ways of travelling to the Kingdom of Sweets than on a giant bird made out of folded newspaper.
In all this, both the story and the choreography struggle to keep afloat. The narrative's bare bones survive unchanged, but weakened. The young choreographer Christopher Hampson does a fine job, considering. He has decided to ditch what remains of the so-called traditional steps in favour of new ones. His pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince is an exquisite piece of ballet classicism, performed with crystalline enchantment by Agnes Oaks and elegance by Thomas Edur. (His solo is set to music imported from outside, from the sequence popularly known as Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.)
The Battle of the Mice manages to suggest convincingly hectic activity – and also boasts the production's one good joke, when a giant mousetrap chops off a mouse's tail. The Snowflakes scene is an effective ensemble dance, and even more so the Waltz of the Flowers, with its lovely motif of arms opening out like flower buds, because Hampson knows how to find telling movement and leave it with space to breathe.
The company do the best that they can. Mukhamedov gives full vent to his considerable, slightly hammy charm. Yat-Sen Chang raises cheers from the audience with his airborne tricks in the Russian dance. Erina Takahashi is a delicate and cheerful Clara. It says a lot that her simple white pyjamas are the production's nicest design item.
Touring to Southampton, Manchester; then to London Coliseum, 3 Dec-4 Jan
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies