Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker dates from 1992, when his centenary version of Tchaikovsky’s imperishable ballet, based on a story by E T A Hoffman, was commissioned by Opera North. Bourne re-launched the show with his New Adventures company five years ago at Sadler’s Wells, and this revival marks its second return to Rosebery Avenue before embarking on an extensive national tour at the end of January.
It is sheer delight. Instead of the traditional opening of a family Christmas Eve interrupted by the arrival of Clara’s mysterious godfather Drosselmeyer, we are plunged into the cheerless world of Dr Dross’s orphanage for waifs and strays. Clara and the other orphans are dislocated from the Christmas family spirit and the story has somewhere to go.
That somewhere, of course, is the Land of Sweets, or Sweetieland as Bourne calls it, where Clara (Kerry Biggin) and her nutcracker soldier (Alan Vincent) – transformed from a ventriloquist’s doll into an athletic prince in a white slacks and braces – are embroiled in the fairytale romance of Princess Sugar (dazzling Michela Meazza) and Prince Bon-Bon (Drew McOnie) and their court of dancing eye candy.
Reinventing the dramaturgy, Bourne creates a story that owes as much to the spirit of Little Orphan Annie as it does to that of Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz. The other great 1990s radical version was Mark Morris’s, first seen in Brussels, which created a much darker psychological hinterland for Clara’s awakening. Bourne and his designer Anthony Ward keep things lighter and more colourful, even in the fight with the mice and the rather gruesome revolt in the orphanage.
The skating scene on the frozen lake is one of the highlights, the swish and movement magically conveyed with slides, glides and trailing arms. This is the winter wonderland of your dreams, and the slightly sarcastic humour that informs most of the piece only breaks through when we meet the dancing Cupids in their winged, striped pyjamas.
The series of famous dances and beautiful melodies are then joined by the Hispanic Liquorice Allsorts, the bovver-booted Gobstoppers, the Marshmallow Girls in their candy-floss hair and pom-poms, the Humbug Bouncer (faint memories of the orphanage) and the wonderfully bizarre Knickerbocker Glory (Ashley Bain), a sort of sinister ringmaster.
Instead of existing merely as an escapist interlude, Sweetieland operates on Clara’s consciousness as a spur to opportunity, and we only return to the orphanage so that she can discover a way of leaving it. Not least of the evening’s pleasures is the orchestral playing in the pit under Timothy Henty, contributing fully to the show’s sense of “special occasion.”