The Nutcracker is widely associated with the ballet, a watered down version of E.T.A. Hoffman's fairy tale. Now, however, writers Hattie Naylor and Paul Dodgson have written a play that harks back to the original story. Watching it though, I wondered whether the ballet had watered down the story for a reason.
In the first act Clara is given the nutcracker by her uncle Drosselmeier. The rest of the first act is then devoted to telling the backstory of the Nutcracker and the Mouse King. A lengthy and intricate story, full of adventure, magic, and drama. It could easily be made into a play itself and yet it is all stuffed into one act. Clara too is almost forgotten until the play returns to her as the first act ends.
In comparison, the familiar story of her adventures with the Nutcracker feels like an afterthought in this play. Whilst the second act has its moments, such as an explosive battle between the Nutcracker and the mice, it is all padding for a scenario that could be wrapped up in less than 30 minutes.
The play feels like it doesn't know what it wants to be. Not only do the two acts feel uneven, but it takes a while for the play to get going. Themes are brought up and forgotten until the very end, plot points come out of nowhere, and Sweetland, though mouth-watering, is barely seen. The dialogue too feels stilted at times. Having a narrator who ACTUALLY forgets his lines is not funny at all.
Director Blanche McIntyre and the cast have to be commended for their efforts in producing this flawed play. Jonathan Clew is an imperious King, whilst Hannah Lee as Mauselink is a menacing mouse queen. Saskia Portway sings a lovely lullaby as Clara's mother, Freida. Krystian Godlewski is an eccentric Drosselmeier. Sandy Bachelor gives a sterling performance as the brave Nutcracker. The standout performance though is John Biddle as an oddly suave King Mouse.
The set is a marvel as it revolves to reveal all kinds of settings. The costumes are lavish, especially the large wooden nutcracker head that Batchelor has to wear on his head. The songs are lovely though the cast is drowned out by the band on either side of the stage.
Altogether you do get the original story of The Nutcracker, but the delivery of the story is flawed. At the very least it is mildly enjoyable for the kids, though it does have some dark, flinch inducing moments. A good production but not a great start to Sam Hodges' artistic directorship at the Nuffield Theatre.
The Nutcracker, at the Nuffield Theatre Southampton until 12 January 2014
- David Jobson