A fun-filled cracker of a show

Clara and Knickerbocker Glory, in a rather elaborate wig, dance the calories away in Sweetieland

Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

IT takes a brave man to bring Nutcracker to the stage of the Hippodrome, spiritual home of Birmingham Royal Ballet's masterpiece, but Matthew Bourne manages it with aplomb . . .  sugar aplomb if you like.

But this is not really a comparison between two competing ballets, BRB have a magnificent, traditional, classical interpretation of  Tcbut a fun filled interpretation of the glorious music of Tchaikovsky.

As Bourne said at a Q&A session at the end of the opening night, the 101st performance of Nutcracker on this tour, his New Adventures company is not a ballet company but a dance theatre company and that is what he gives you – theatre with a story told in dance.

This was the first of his full length dance pieces, dating back 20 years, the next  Tchaikovsky ballet was Swan Lake and he is currently working on the third great ballet by the Russian master, Sleeping Beauty which is expected to premiere in Autumn.

He said: “I always feel an affinity with Tchaikovsky's music. It tells a story and that is what I do, narrative.”

And that is what his Nutcracker does, it tells a story. Unlike the BRB version the story opens not at a Christmas party in a wealthy household but in a scene from Dickens, a poor orphanage with children in threadbare uniforms expected to perform for the governors by Dr Dross (Neil Westmoreland), a sort of educational Herr Flick without the limp, and his wife (Etta Murfitt).

Clara is helped in her quest for true love and Nutcracker by the Cupids

Assisting him in his cruelty to the waifs and strays are his spoilt brats  Sugar (Ashley Shaw) and Fritz (Dominic North). To impress the governors the scruffy children, who could be straight out of Oliver Twist, are given meagre Christmas presents - which are then taken away as soon as the dignitaries go, leaving Clara (Hannah Vassallo) distraught at losing her Nutcracker doll.

As the children sleep Clara looks for her doll and the Nutcracker comes to life and takes Clara off to a dreamland where he changes into a bare chested handsome youth (Chris Trenfield) and amid all the fun, humour and great entertainment their pas de deux is truly a thing of rare beauty, a wonderfully expressive dance.

We have a snowstorm and skaters where Sugar and Fritz have become Princess Suagr and Prince Bon-Bon  before Clara heads off to Sweetieland helped by the pyjama clad cupids (Sophia Hurdley and Liam Mower) where Dr Dross and his wife have been transformed to King and Queen Candy.

Defending the entrance is the humbug bouncer (Leon Moran) while guests include Liquorice All Sorts, Kickerbocker Glory, (Adam Maskell) the Marshmallow Girls and the Gobstoppers, the bovver boys in motorcycle helmets, played by Daniel Collins, Luke Murphy amd Danny Reubens.

The Allsorts are a remarkably cheesy latino trio with a dance to match their garish costumes, slicked down hair and pencil moustaches – the men that is - played by Tom Jackson Greaves, Katrina Lyndon and Leon Moran.

In contrast the marshmallow girls, Carrie Johnson, Mari Kamata, Daisy May Kemp, Kate Lyons and Chloe Wilkinson)  look like fluffy extras from a 1930's Busby Berkeley musical and you half expect them to form a line and break into a high-kicking tap routine at any moment.

It doesn't come much slicker than the Liquorice Allsorts . . . Olé

The Nutcracker is seduced by the charms of Princess Sugar but as in all good dreams he finally comes back to Clara and as fantasy and reality become intertwined the pair escape from the orphanage, Colditz style, down a rope of bedsheets, to begin a life anew to cheers all around.

The infectious enthusiasm and enjoyment of the cast shines through and the production is full of little visual asides such as the orphan and then the marshmallow girls sneaking a peek up Sugar's dress – what does she keep up there, ferrets? -  there are pushes and shoves, little looks and reactions so no one stands and watches awaiting their turn. The whole, excellent and talented cast is always alive, always acting, always embellishing and polishing the narrative.

A note as well about the set by Anthony Ward with its nightmare walls, windows and furniture at strange angles in the orphanage – how the asymmetrical window managed to open straight up is still a mystery – which break open to reveal the fluffy scenes of frozen lake with its giant pillow and floating feather.

Then comes Sweetieland where the giant birthday cake with its 10 huge candles even managed a round of applause.

In his Q&A session Bourne admitted he did not really fit in in the artistic establishment, as he was neither a classical ballet or dance company nor real theatre, a sort of in between. In a way that is true but equally in 20 years he has created his own niche, his own genre, dance theatre, stories without words and with Nutcracker it is a delight and great fun to watch.

Roger Clarke

More nuts to crack . . .

THIS is a vastly different ballet to the traditional version performed so often as a welcome Christmas treat by the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

 But Matthew Bourne has created a masterpiece of its own, almost guaranteed to be a success since it is built round the same wonderful Tchaikovsky music that audiences love.

Here the story doesn't open in the opulent home of a wealthy family, with well-heeled guests arriving in their finery to be entertained on Christmas Eve.

Instead the curtain opens to reveal a rather stark set representing a grim orphanage for waifs and strays, and the dancers are the young, grey-clad ‘inmates', ill treated and quickly relieved of the somewhat meagre seasonal gifts given to them by the governors, Dr and Mrs Dross (Neil Westmoreland and Etta Murfitt), to impress important visitors.

There's a touch of Annie the orphan and Oliver about the start, but the colour and spectacular dancing soon arrives as one of the orphans, Clara, beautifully danced by Hannah Vassallo, slips into the dream world of Sweetieland with the nutcracker toy, transformed into a handsome young man.

 Chris Trenfield is superb as the Nutcracker, lured away by the beautiful Princess Sugar (Ashley Shaw), but there is a happy ending with Clara waking from her dream back in the orphanage before escaping with her true love through a window down a knotted sheet.

 There are some fascinating new characters in this ballet, including a trio of Gobstoppers, bully boys in bullseye shirts and crash helmets (Daniel Collins, Luke Murphy and Danny Reubens), a Humbug bouncer and Marshmallow Girls.

A group of bare-chested male dancers no doubt provide a thrill for the ladies in the audience, too, during a memorable ballet bursting with humour and innovation.

 Cheering greeted the finale of a ballet, ‘Bourne-freed' and a sheer delight. To 11.02.12

  Paul Marston

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