Matthew Bourne’s Anarchic Nutcracker is Strong on Detail

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Nutcracker: New Adventures, Matthew Bourne (director/choreographer), Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 29.11.2011 (SRT)

Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker has been doing the rounds in some form or other for nearly twenty years now. It arrives in Edinburgh as part of its anniversary tour, and it’s a welcome return. Bourne has made his name as a daring, often anarchic storyteller, most obviously in his all-male Swan Lake, and he reimagines Tchaikovsky’s tale very effectively so that it gains a dark side. In Bourne’s hands it’s a long way from being a sugary Christmas treat. The first act is set in Dr Dross’s Orphanage, a grim Dickensian institution populated by miserable waifs and strays. The orphans have to contend for their presents with the ghastly son and daughter of the owners, and Clara’s toy doll even has its arms ripped off in a tussle with the two of them. The doll then comes to life in the night, does battle with the Dross family and brings Clara to Sweetieland. Even there, however, Clara has to vie with Princess Sugar for the attentions of the “Nutcracker”. Eventually, when they return to the orphanage, Clara and the Nutcracker escape from the orphanage to a happier life.

Bourne’s narrative skill is seen in the attention to detail of his staging. The dark greys and blacks of the orphanage melt beautifully into the bright whites of the frozen lake and the garish blues and pinks of Sweetieland, giving each location an entirely distinctive feel. He is also remarkably skilled at delineating character: each of the orphans has a distinguishing personality which they carry through to their Sweetieland incarnations, creating dramatic unity that works very well. The most successful of these is Dominic North, whose comic timing permeates all of his dancing, be it as the ghastly Master Dross or the self-important Prince Bon-Bon. Each of the “national dances” from the second act goes to a different confection, be they dolly mixtures, marshmallows or liquorice allsorts, and they all come together on an enormous wedding cake for the Waltz of the Flowers.

The dancing itself is successful because it is so varied. The scenes in the orphanage are stark and free, and the sweetie dances are all characterful in their own way. However, the set pieces are wonderful, especially Clara’s first duet with the Nutcracker, intimate and touching after the austerity of the orphanage and beautifully danced by Hannah Vassallo and Chris Trenfield. The great pas de deux of Act 2, between the Nutcracker and Princess Sugar, is vigorous and agile, with just a hint of eroticism, skilfully avoiding conventional gracefulness for its own sake.

A super night at the ballet, then; it’s a great introduction to the power of dance for first timers, and those who have seen it already will love reacquainting themselves with it again.

Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker is at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre until Saturday 3rd December. It moves to Sadlers Wells on 6th December and will then be on tour into 2012. For full details click here.

Simon Thompson