The Nutcracker at Bristol Old Vic – review
Tom Morris' final show at Bristol Old Vic has its premiere
Christmas shows are without doubt the money spinner that pays for a good share of the work that makes up the rest of the year's regional theatre programming. Therefore, artistically it's one of the most important shows to get right. Land the magic and you fill the rafters for the run of the show, but also find your potential punters for the future. Miss and you can suffer ramifications that play out for the rest of the year.
The team of director Lee Lyford, composer Gwyneth Herbert and book writer and former Bristol Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris previously worked alchemy in creating A Christmas Carol which played two years running to a rapturous reception. So, hopes were high that their new production of The Nutcracker would hit similar heights. If the show never reaches close to those scales, it's still a somewhat fascinating festive show with at least one ace up its sleeve.
This hold to love is in Tom Rogers fever dream of a set, clocks, and wind-up mechanisms towering over the stage in a neon not seen since Moulin Rouge! hit our shores. It's the highlight of the night, the point at which the cramped early scenes played out on the Old Vic forestage open into a world of possibilities, a moment of magic that the rest of the work can't quite replicate.
I wonder if some of the blame can be laid at the feet of its source material. E T A Hoffmann's fairy tale was turned into Tchaikovsky's legendary ballet but it's not become a theatrical staple. Watching it play out over two hours its material seems thin, there is a lot of talk about time standing still when it needs to keep moving (a core theme of the evening). A good Christmas show usually finds a drive in its narrative, but there is something slow and dreamlike occurring here that means there are longueurs that left some of the younger patrons around me stirring in their seats.
The performances within the small ensemble cast can also be patchy. Denzel Baidoo provides a strong professional debut as the titular Nutcracker, here a clown rather than a soldier, all melancholy and gliding movements. Tristan Sturrock meanwhile brings an eccentric gentleness to the clock mender Mr Choke though it's not a role that particularly challenges this southwest stalwart. Mar Munuo makes a charming enough heroine while Herbert provides some powerful vocals as the Queen Rat whose curses set the whole tale in motion – though her songs generally fall into the functional not memorable category. There are no earworms like Carol offered here.
Yet it all feels methodical rather than magical, from Morris' workaday script to Lyford's by-the-book direction. It's frustrating because we've seen the enchantments they can create – but that's mostly contained here in the dreamscape set and lost in the story.
It's been a strangely muted year for this theatre at the end of a golden reign from Morris as AD. Perhaps in a way this show isn't a bad summing up of what his sovereignty was all about. A show not in thrall to the conventional, a belief in the power of simplicity to turn theatrical gold. These are golden edicts even in a work that lands unevenly in its final reckoning.