Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!
Bristol Hippodrome, until Saturday, April 21
Every child longs for sweeties – especially at Christmas – but be careful, this fantastically inventive production of Nutcracker! warns, because the consequences of eating too many might turn nasty.
Matthew Bourne piles the sweeties high – this modern fairy tale (now a scarcely believable 20 years old) is a visual feast as well as a radical re-interpretation of Petipa/Ivanov’s original ballet set to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.
Picture this: we have a walking ventriloquist’s dummy who comes to life and sways like Frankenstein’s monster taking the place of the traditional nutcracker (superbly and athletically danced by Christopher Trenfield on this first night). Our heroine Clara, (an equally wonderful and expressive Hannah Vassallo on this occasion), is a poor girl in a comically grim Dickensian orphanage instead of a rich girl at a family Christmas feast. She still dreams of a fantasy land more magical and romantic than her own life – but in Nutcracker! her dream suggests a darker sexuality, too.
Her hero soon transforms from a dummy to a hopelessly idealised and heavily muscled man and moments later is striking Mr Universe poses for her enjoyment. Her head flops onto his chest – he’s just too wonderful for words.
Later, there’s a party going on in Sweetieland and at its centre is a giant Busby Berkeley style wedding cake around which dance yobby Gobstoppers in biker leather and crash helmets, bitchy, airheaded Marshmallow girls who preen and ruffle their finery, flashy Liquorice Allsorts as Matadors and Flamenco dancers, Cupids (complete with wings) dressed in pyjamas, a sleaze-ball of a Knickerbocker Glory topped with whipped cream who won’t keep his hands to himself and, as this is an invitation only party, the entrance (a huge throat) is guarded by a stocky Humbug with a very strict door policy.
If you prefer your ballets traditional you might already have decided Matthew Bourne’s interpretation is not for you – but there’s much more than wacky costumes and gimmicky ideas in Nutcracker! For a start it tells its story really effectively – using every opportunity Tchaikovsky’s music allows. Indeed, this version may make you appreciate more than ever how wonderful the original music is. Such a shame, then, that it can’t be performed here by a live orchestra – prohibitive costs, probably.
The choreography and design (by Anthony Ward) are real treats. Nutcracker!’s pantomime-like elements make it a wonderful first-time ballet for children to enjoy (there were many in the audience for this first performance), but, like all the very best fairy tales, it also includes darker, more sinister aspects for the grown -ups.
Clara’s dream life cleverly mirrors her real life, so her Nutcracker is a dream version of the boy back in the orphanage on whom she has a teenage crush. Real-life Clara always loses out to spoilt girl Sugar, so in the dream Princess Sugar – Bourne’s version of the Sugar Plum Fairy – seduces Nutcracker away from Clara, to her despair.
In the orphanage it’s always other girls who get the sweeties, so in the dream world Clara is determined to get into the Sweetieland party – but the characters she finds there (once again all recognisable figures from the orphanage) are ghastly, lascivious monsters who judge everyone on how they taste, not on who they are.
Made to appear even more extreme – by Bourne’s hugely expressive choreography – they constantly lick themselves, each other and their surroundings; they’re never satisfied, always greedy for more. Clara’s dream has turned into a nightmare (too many sweeties) and Princess Sugar has won again – she and the Nutcracker have married.
But then, just as it seems that all has been lost and Clara has woken up cold and alone back in the grim confines of the orphanage… Ah, but that would be telling.
Nutcracker! is a joy; a treat that always leaves you wanting more. And it’s originality even extends to a sweet idea in its programme – the dancers and production team are identified by pictures of them all as children. It’s also explained here that who plays which character can change performance by performance, so to be properly informed you need to see the cast list displayed in The Hippodrome’s foyer.