Pinker than a pink thing
Originally created in 1992, Nutcracker! was Matthew Bourne’s first full-evening story ballet. Treading the boards 20 years later it remains just as fresh and entertaining as it must have done all those years ago at its Edinburgh Festival premiere.
Set in a miserable Dickensian orphanage where the joys of Christmas are only displayed for the benefit of passing VIPs, the contrast with the grimy glamour of Sweetieland is a typical masterstroke of Bourne’s visual storytelling. Anthony Ward’s designs are excitingly bold and colourful, his wonderful costumes as camp as a pocket-full of Dolly Mixtures, while Howard Harrison’s lighting is often beautiful, particularly when the orphanage is ripped asunder and the promise of a brighter world floods in.
Where Nutcracker! struggles is in its two-dimensional characters; the childish humour is so prevalent there’s no room for a change of emotional gear. There’s an interestingly dark story lurking behind the glitz that’s never fully exploited; Clara has a pretty miserable time in Sweetieland struggling for acceptance from the local residents, fighting off the sordid attentions of a Knickerbocker Glory and ultimately finding herself caught at the wrong end of a three-way love-tug.
But I guess that’s hardly the point – Nutcracker! is theatrical spectacle writ large, skipping along with flair and a bundle of imaginative visual touches. The pleasure is often in the details; the way motionless ice-skaters’ skirts are flapped to suggest propulsion, the twittering birds bringing Clara’s dress on stage or in the fear expressed by the orphans’ shivering sheets.
Bourne’s choreography is fun in the short set-pieces, such as the National dances, but sometimes drags in the longer numbers, often running out of steam part-way through – enough arm-licking already.
The dancing, however, is polished and energetic. Chris Trenfield stands out as a strong and graceful Nutcracker (once he gets past the drunk Dean Martin phase), Tom Jackson Greaves conjures up an insidiously sleazy Knickerbocker Glory and Hannah Vassalo is an expressive Clara who ties the episodic strands of the story together remarkably well. The company’s ensemble work is well-executed and performed with an engaging enthusiasm while the short encore demonstrates Bourne’s unrivalled ability to connect with an audience.
Taken in the right spirit, what’s not to love really?