Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! Lovers, fighters and philosophists! Take your seats for story of The Nutcracker as you’ve never seen it before. There are sword fights, golden bathtubs and not a tutu in sight.
Annie Siddons’s adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s original novella transforms the Unicorn Theatre into the weird and wonderful world of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Hoffman himself (Sandy Grierson) is our trusty raconteur, on hand to guide us through the story, which is a little more complicated than the familiar ballet. It’s Christmas Eve and young Marie and her brother Fritz are overjoyed when their eccentric godfather Drosselmeyer (Colin Michael Carmichael) brings gifts, including a curious Nutcracker doll. Marie (Akiya Henry) becomes enamoured with the doll and, much to her delight, finds he comes alive later that night to help her battle the army of mice that have taken up residence in her mother’s kitchens.
Things take on a complex story within a story within a story structure, and we follow Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker and Marie on various adventures through enchanted kingdoms and candy lands. The narrative jumps around quickly and the pacing is somewhat erratic; by the second act it feels like we’ve rushed through the story and are surprised to find there’s still half an hour more. I’d imagine that this is the result of the Unicorn’s commitment to treating its young audiences like intelligent little people – there’ll be no dumbing down or over-simplifying here. Ellen McDougall’s production certainly offers depth and darkness that can be appreciated by all ages.
McDougall’s cast have quite a task – the show is bursting with costume changes, slapstick, dancing and a lot of physical business involving props and moveable set pieces – but the energy never falters. Henry leads the way as the incandescent Marie; she bounces around the stage with wide-eyed wonderment and sheer determination. Grierson brings a whimsical yet Gothic sensibility to Hoffman: imagine if Sacha Baron Cohen played Willy Wonka. As the puppet master of the story he also knows how to work the audience, enrapturing the children with his mysterious ways whilst sneaking in plenty of jokes for the grown-ups. Meanwhile the charismatic Colin Michael Carmichael, dressed like a dishevelled steam-punk Doctor Who, charms cast and crowd alike.
One of the most fantastical features has to be James Button’s design, particularly the life-size mechanical castle that the performers bustle in and out of and climb all over. Throughout the show more of its marvellous secrets are revealed, until the most magical moment when, enhanced by Andy Purves’s enchanting lighting design, the giant cuckoo clock is transformed into a ginormous gingerbread house that sets everyone’s taste buds tingling. And I won’t forget the terrifically frightening sight of puppet designer Max Humphries’s seven-headed mouse king any time soon.
For a show aimed at children, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King ticks so many of the right boxes: it provides gasps of fright, squeals of joy and rounds of laughter. There are a number of clunky moments and slip-ups with dialogue and blocking, but with a little more oil on the cogs this twist on a festive favourite will be running like clockwork.
The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is playing at the Unicorn Theatre until 4 January. For more information and tickets, see the Unicorn Theatre website.