Akiya Henry as Marie and Alex Austin as Fritz
Akiya Henry as Marie and Alex Austin as Fritz
© Manuel Harlan

One thing almost immediately apparent about The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is that the cast engage and encourage children and adults alike to use their imaginations in a way rarely seen in more 'grown-up' fare.

Annie Siddons' play captures perfectly all the elements of E T A Hoffmann's 1816 novella upon which it is based; in fact Hoffmann himself is a constant presence as an at once amusing and comically sinister narrator.

Hoffmann was a great believer that his readers should use their imaginations as much as possible, which is an ethos clearly shared by director Ellen McDougall - the children in the audience were captivated throughout, despite the running time of nearly 2hrs 30mins (which, for me, is just a tad too long.)

This is an ensemble production that features two stand out lead performances by Akiya Henry as Marie and Sandy Grierson as Hoffman. Henry is delightful as the young Marie who falls in love with the wooden Nutcracker toy. Throughout the story she makes us believe that we should never be afraid to create and imagine, even in the face of an overbearing and fretful parent.

James Button's set is fittingly magical. The central structure of the gingerbread house opens up the Unicorn stage vertically and the actors use this to optimum effect - conjuring first a family home and later a gingerbread palace; a visit to Candyland in the second half elicited excited gasps among young and old alike and the despicable Mouse King's appearances spice up proceedings with just the right amount of fearsomeness.

Without a hint of Tchaikovsky or a tutu in sight this is nevertheless a highly enjoyable first Nutcracker of the season and I would encourage any parent to take their children to see this sparkling treat over the Christmas period. The most enchanting night I have had in the theatre for quite some time.