Review: Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker, Festival Theatre

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Darkly unsettling and trading in the stuff of nightmares, Matthew Bourne’s take on the Nutcracker is a ballet which fizzes with energy and theatre as it bursts from grey orphanage into bright Sweetieland.

The music is still Tchaikovsky’s and the basic story is the same: young Clara is given a nutcracker on Christmas Eve that comes to life at midnight. But the back-story of a Dickensian orphanage and its cruel, whip-wielding owner provides a truly dark setting for it all.

Sweetieland might seem bright and appealing by contrast, with its applause-inducing scenery. But it is just a place for Bourne to play with the innocent Clara as her Nutcracker is stolen from her by the orphanage owner’s daughter – transformed into a Princess.

Of course the choreography is vital. Bourne uses the original themes and motifs to great effect – while subverting them at every turn. Here with a lick, there with 20th century gesture. If the initial romance between Clara and Nutcracker is exquisite, her later seduction by a lascivious Knickerbocker Glory is menacing to the point where you fear for her safety.

What seals the ballet’s success is the characterisation. Even before the curtain rises the orphans are establishing clear characters – which remain with them throughout all their transformations from waifs and strays to sweets.

Throughout the ballet, whether orphans dancing dutifully for the visiting dignitaries or fighting over their presents, you can see the individuals develop. And when they appear as skaters on the pond where Princess Sugar takes Nutcracker, they are just a little bit more so.

When they finally appear in Sweetieland the elements really come to the fore. Here are spiteful marshmallows, hard-as-nails gobstoppers and stuck-up liquorice allsorts. Attributes which they just work on and enlarge in the dances to celebrate the Act II wedding.

This is a sumptuous, engaging ballet, with all the elements present and correct, from imaginative scenery to bright, seductive costumes and beautiful, athletic dancers. Even the lack of a live orchestra fails to impinge on the enjoyment as Clara wakes from her nightmare to find a dream.

Run ends Saturday