Nutcracker! review – Matthew Bourne's festive treat returns
New Adventures are back at Sadler's Wells
Watching any live performance at this precise moment is loaded with poignancy. As in March and December last year, live arts are once again teetering on a knife edge as the pandemic surges. Many shows have already been forced to cancel performances and those that continue are playing to depleted houses.
Against this backdrop the job of criticism becomes a challenging one. How to appraise work and individual artists that are under such existential threat? As Nutcracker! choreographer Matthew Bourne observed in an interview recently, this applies particularly to young dancers, whose careers tend to be short and are in danger of becoming a lost generation.
So it feels my duty to report, while I can, just how dazzling they are. Bourne's production reaches its 30th anniversary next year and, with a fresh lick of paint, is now as sumptuous – and scrumptious – as it has ever been. Although it feels like a perennial classic it is in fact the first time New Adventures have staged it in ten years, and it bursts with vitality.
Bourne and original collaborators director Martin Duncan and designer Anthony Ward cleverly set the action not in a wealthy home but an austere Victorian orphanage, where Clara's romantic night with the anthropomorphic Nutcracker has the added thrill of longed-for escape. The hunky life-size doll sweeps her off to Sweetieland where she encounters dancing gobstoppers, marshmallows and Allsorts, and must suffer the romantic rivalry of Princess Sugar (a neat double with the spoilt daughter of orphanage owners Dr and Matron Dross).
The whole thing exudes a sense of elicit indulgence, whether confectionery or carnal. There is sugar and snogging aplenty as Clara's coming-of-age story is freed from its usual strictures and allowed to run wild. When the Nutcracker removes his mask and flexes his pecs she swoons onto his bare chest; when he's joined by a small army she faints on the floor. Bourne's choreography is laden with sex – at one point the Nutcracker and Princess Sugar greedily lick each other's arms – while Ward's designs are suitably garish, from the almost steampunk orphanage to an oversized wedding cake bedecked with writhing dancers.
Those dancers, 17 of whom have come through the New Adventures talent development programmes, are uniformly excellent from the principals to the corps. There is a palpable playfulness to the entire ensemble that ensures a sense of fun permeates everything; Princess Sugar and the Marshmallows could have stepped straight out of Mean Girls, while Sweetieland MC the Knickerbocker Glory has the energy of a creepy gameshow host. All named characters are (wisely) doubled and in some cases tripled, so it seems unfair to name names, but a hat tip to all.
Last but certainly not least there's the score. Tchaikovsky's tunes are given a ravishing treatment by the orchestra under principal conductor Brett Morris. The famous numbers come thick and fast, especially in the second act, from the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy to the Cossack dance "Trepak", and each feels as fresh and crisp as a Russian winter. This is a lavish indulgence for the ears as well as the eyes, and right now we can all appreciate Clara's brief opportunity to dream of a different world.