Reviews Dance Published 17 December 2011

Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!

Sadler's Wells ⋄ 6th December 2011 – 22nd January 2012

Sugar and spice.

Sam Smith

This is very much the Christmas of The Nutcracker in London. The Royal Ballet is staging Sir Peter Wright’s classic 1984 production, English National Ballet sees the return of Wayne Eagling’s 2010 creation, while Birmingham Royal Ballet is bringing its own extravaganza to the 02 before the year is out. But the most imaginative interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s work has to be Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!, which is appearing at Sadler’s Wells for the first time since 2007.

Originally created for Opera North in 1992, and having undergone various re-workings since, Bourne believed that for modern day audiences the initial Christmas tree scene already feels too magical to contrast effectively with the fantasy world that follows. He therefore sets the ballet in an orphanage in which the magician Drosselmeyer is reinvented as the institute’s mean governor, depriving the orphans of Christmas merriment while spoiling his own children rotten.

The result is a ballet in which all of the characters are strongly delineated. It starts with each orphan scuttling on, their differing reactions to seeing bright lights and a large audience marking them out as individuals. The characters are developed further in Act Two’s Sweetieland as the twins (Carrie Johnson and Liam Mower) become cupids who speed Clara on her way, and the other orphans become the Gobstopper Boys and Marshmallow Girls in the Suite.

The dancing is excellent, and most of Act One’s solos and duets are turned into large ensemble pieces. As the orphans dance, the fluidity and dynamism in their movement is effectively tempered with a degree of mechanical gesture, thus maintaining a link with the Harlequin, Columbine and Soldier who normally perform the routines. Of the soloists, Hannah Vassallo as Clara stands out, combining strong gestures and reactions with exemplary technique in her clean, graceful movements. Equally exciting are Chris Trenfield’s flexible and enthusiastic Nutcracker, and Ashley Shaw’s brilliantly precocious and seductive Princess Sugar.

In this production, the whole of Act Two sees Clara searching for the Nutcracker as she travels through Sweetieland. This means that, although we are treated to a series of sugar-coated dances, there remains an element of tension in the air, with the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy presenting an overt confrontation between good and evil. More disappointing is the way in which everything is resolved in an instant, as Clara returns to the orphanage, although this may be making a point in its own right. In this version, the dream has become a nightmare, and it is paradoxically the advent of reality that fulfils the dream.

The orchestra, under the baton of Brett Morris, plays well but its size makes it necessary for it to be amplified. This is therefore not the best production for contemplation of Tchaikovsky’s delicious score, although such an approach still has it strengths. For all the magic that Act One’s Frozen Lake scene brings, the experience does not seem overblown because the vocal chanting does not feel as if it is taking over. This allows us to contemplate subtler effects such as how the impression of wind hurtling through the ice skaters’ bodies has been created.

If you crave a classical Nutcracker the Royal Ballet production may serve you well, while the Coliseum offers a production that successfully combines dynamism with a degree of innovation. But it’s Matthew Bourne’s production, that while exciting, delightful and entertaining in equal measure, also offers the thrill of the truly alternative.

Casts vary over the course of the run.


Sam Smith is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! Show Info

Produced by New Adventures

Choreography by Matthew Bourne


Running Time 1 hr 55 mins (including one 20 min interval)



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