Matthew Bourne’s The Nutcracker is not a traditional version of this classic Christmas ballet. A number of changes have been made to the original plot, many of which add a new perspective to the piece. It opens in Dr Dross’ Orphanage for Waifs and Strays, with Clara’s upbringing far closer to that of Oliver Twist than the usual daughter of a wealthy family celebrating Christmas in luxury. This is a welcome alteration, as it allows for far greater contrast between the poor conditions of the orphanage and the magic of the dream sequences, the Frozen Lake and Sweetieland.
The roles of key characters have also been changed. Anyone hoping for an army of mice will be disappointed, but the addition of characters such as the entertaining Humbug Bouncer compensates for this. The cast is outstanding, with strong performances from both the leads and the ensemble. In particular, Princess Sugar (played in this performance by Ashley Shaw) shone, displaying elegance and poise throughout. I was far less keen on the introduction of the Knickerbocker Glory, who had an air of The Child Catcher about him, which made a few members of the audience uncomfortable. The choreography in his duet with Clara felt flat, and was by far the weakest sequence of the performance.
The dance itself is a blend of ballet with contemporary dance, which allows for more variety than classical ballet alone. Pointe shoes are not used in a single dance, which is unusual, however the choreography does not feel as if it is required. The tone of dance changes in each scene and is particularly emotive with excellent use of expression from the characters. Bourne has done well to incorporate the use of humour within the dance, so it feels central to the choreography, rather than an afterthought purely for the purpose of audience engagement.
The set is both imposing and impressive, transitioning smoothly between scenes. A few large statement pieces are used; these appeared more influenced by Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland than traditional Nutcracker staging. Highlights included a giant layer cake in the second half that had been integrated into the choreography. This worked well onstage at the Churchill Theatre Bromley, but I would imagine it would transfer equally well to larger theatres.
The orchestral score is not performed in-house, but is pre-recorded (by the excellent Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), which I consider to be a great shame. The Nutcracker is one of Tchaikovsky’s best loved works and really does deserve a live performance. Although this is likely to be for very practical reasons, it does feel as if the audience is being cheated out of this experience.
Overall, I loved the performance. It can be enjoyed by avid Matthew Bourne fans and as a dance introduction for those that might not otherwise be inclined to spend two hours watching men in tights. The costumes and set design are striking, and there is nothing about the strength, stamina and skill demonstrated by the dancers that not be appreciated by audiences nationwide.