Bethan Hall reviews Nutcracker!, a witty take on the classic Christmas ballet which showed at the Wales Millennium Centre this March.
Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! is a scrumptious reinvention of Tchaikovsky’s much-adored Christmas ballet, first brought to the stage almost thirty years ago. Now on tour, it’s been spruced up and brought back to life by Bourne’s dynamic theatre company, New Adventures. Before the curtain rises on opening night, performers wander onto the stage and react to the audience staring back at them; the self-assured smiles, timid waves and looks of sincere terror elicit a few giggles and quickly set the tone for the quirky production to follow.
The show begins in a drab orphanage, owned by the snooty Dr. Dross and his wife. Dark sets, shapeless grey smocks and gloomy lighting assure us that we’re far from the lavish upper-class world of the traditional Nutcracker story. Although it is Christmas Eve, there’s not much to show for it: a pitiful excuse for a Christmas tree is erected and the orphans are given party hats and paper chains attached to balloons – the smallest splash of colour to the otherwise monochrome room. Clearly, this is all to please the visiting governors who soon arrive with gifts for the young waifs. Dr. Dross’ children, the vexatious Sugar and Fritz, demand attention at every turn, thrusting their way to the front of the corps de ballet and snatching the best toys and treats from the others.
Our protagonist, Clara, is the last to receive a toy from the governors’ basket; she finds the Nutcracker (a ventriloquist’s dummy) and is instantly grateful. At this point it feels almost as though there is more drama than dance, but the somewhat restricted choreography works well to reflect the children’s imprisonment in the orphanage. As soon as the governors leave, the spindly tree is thrown out of the window, the decorations are removed and the toys are locked away.
As the other orphans sleep (some four to a bed!), Clara sneaks out to steal back her precious toy. Following an almighty crash at midnight, a cupboard is opened to reveal that the Nutcracker is now man-sized and very much alive. A somewhat frantic scene follows; once the Nutcracker has the orphans on-side, they rebel against the Dross family, tying them to beds and torturing them in vengeance. Soon the orphans escape and the Nutcracker and Clara are left alone; he sheds his mask, stepping forward as a strapping, topless man. Clara, utterly besotted, leaves behind her living nightmare at the orphanage and follows the Nutcracker to a fantastical dreamland.
Arriving at the Frozen Lake, they skate in the company of the other orphans, now (with the exception of Clara) dressed in graceful white outfits. In this mesmerising scene, the ease with which the orphans drift across the stage seems to embody their liberation from the confines of the orphanage, a subtly clever reimagination of Tchaikovsky’s flurrying snowflake scene. Unfortunately, the orphans aren’t the only ones to have made it to the lake: Sugar and Fritz are here too, now Princess Sugar and Prince Bon-Bon. Soon, Princess Sugar turns the Nutcracker’s head with her allure, whisking him away and leaving Clara alone as the curtain draws the first act to an end.
In its closing half, we find a wavering Clara dwelling at the crossroads between the Frozen Lake and Sweetieland. She’s joined by her two friends from the orphanage, who are now pyjama-clad Cupids, fluttering their tiny wings and prancing across the stage. With the persuasion of a blue polkadot dress, they convince Clara to follow Princess Sugar and the Nutcracker to Sweetieland (of course, the dress solves everything).
Ruled by King Sherbert (Dr. Dross) and Queen Candy (Mrs Dross), the entrance to Sweetieland is guarded by an unyielding Humbug Bouncer: no ticket, no entry. Here, we see Bourne take on Tchaikovsky’s national dances. Racial stereotypes are cleverly circumvented by the characters who are now sweet reincarnations of the orphans, presenting their invitations to be allowed through the mouth-shaped entrance. This is perhaps the climax of the production, with Bourne’s choreography set to Tchaikovsky’s ‘Danse Espagnole’, ‘Danse Arabe’, ‘Danse Chinoise’ and ‘Trépak’, each brought to life by Anthony Ward’s costumes; first the flamenco-dancing Allsorts Trio, then the slinky Knickerbocker Glory, followed by the flouncy Marshmallow Girls and finally the boisterous, frisky Gobstoppers (who eventually break out into a fight, causing enough distraction for Clara and her Cupids to finally slip through the gateway).
Inside, they find a humongous pink wedding cake adorned with their delectable sweet-friends: the Nutcracker and Princess Sugar are getting married. Despite Clara’s best efforts to catch the attention of the Nutcracker, the wedding goes ahead. The party includes a lot of gestural dancing; characters appear to be licking each other and devouring handfuls of cake, producing a surprisingly dignified yet witty spectacle.
All this has left Clara pining for the Nutcracker, her love for him still unrequited when she is discovered and escorted out by the Humbug Bouncer. Clara awakens back at the dingy orphanage, having returned, it seems, to normality. In a somewhat abrupt conclusion, she finds the Nutcracker in her bed, they embrace and the two escape through the orphanage window as the curtain falls, leaving us with a stolen, last-minute happy ending.
Although there were times at which the performance felt less like a ballet and more like a lyricless musical (the overexaggerated movements and modern twists adding to an overall sense of heightened drama), it certainly had its benefits in storytelling for the less experienced dance-goer. Bourne’s choreography and Ward’s vivid designs make this show a true spectacle, bringing Tchaikovsky’s work into the twenty-first century with an explosion of sweetness and a well-received, trademark sprinkling of wit.
Find out more about Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! on the New Adventures website.