The Royal Ballet's Nutcracker and I have grown older together, through nearly 20 Christmases. In fact, this is a production which, through sheer tedium, has probably hastened my decomposition, while it got itself a face-lift a few years back. The tweaks, though, have only elaborated its addled confusion and done nothing to resolve the central flaws. I have invited elderly and middle-aged guests and seen them slump lower and lower into their seats. Ten years ago, my nine-year old nephew fell asleep during the second act. For last Friday's matinée I brought Danielle, aged 11, who also fell asleep during the second act. I didn't, but on other occasions it's been a close thing.
One tactic for staying awake is to try to figure out just who Peter Wright's production is for. You might imagine young spectators would be part of his equation. But the story he has woven round the Nutcracker's role is too complicated for dance. And if we adults have trouble deciphering what's going on, how can someone like Danielle, especially during the utterly baffling prologue he's tacked on? Julia Trevelyan Oman's stiflingly genteel designs must also take much of the blame: lavish historical authenticity, certainly, but what dowdy shapes and a drab palette when children want visual excitement. The Kingdom of Sweets may have kept its name, but the predominant colour is beige, while the confectionery melted away a long time ago. This means the national dances are just that, with no cross-referencing to chocolate, ice cream and the like – and tastefully tame they are too. Yes, I know Kingdom's walls are supposed to be enlarged replicas of the sugar table-decoration which makes such a fleeting appearance at the Stahlbaum's Christmas party, that nobody in their right minds would make the connection.
This is a production also where Clara and the Nutcracker get most of the action, giving the excellent Jonathan Howells a real chance to shine. Yet, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier get top billing, and if, like my young guests, you briefly fall asleep, you'll miss them altogether. Injury and illness being rife, it was a winning idea for the Royal Ballet's new director Monica Mason to appear beforehand and explain the cast changes personally: no Darcey Bussell (flu) or Jonathan Cope (injury) or Zenaida Yanowsky (eye infection), but audience sympathy was aroused. Instead we had Miyako Yoshida who suits the Sugar Plum role to a tee, with her crystalline precision and demure charm; while elegant Ivan Putrov performed some of the softest, biggest assemblé jumps I have ever seen and Marianela Nuòez (replacing Yanowsky) brought lovely rubato phrasing to the Waltz of the Flowers. At Monday's matinée Jaimie Tapper swopped Sugar Plum's allure for efficiency and Yohei Sasaki offered neatness without thrills. Maybe his enthusiasm was dampened by the costume forced on him; humiliation is the word and he should sue.
Royal Opera House, London (www.roh.org.uk, 020-7304 4000) To 10 January
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