There are few things more quintessentially Christmassy than Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, based on the German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann’s frankly really weird sounding 1816 novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The ballet’s fame has long eclipsed its source material’s and this quirky interpretation presented by young company Butterfly Wheels led by Alice Old and Kayleigh Allenby (who have written and directed the show) has returned to the original story and given it a contemporary flair. There’s no Land of Sweets in Hoffmann and the gracious Sugar Plum Fairy and her friends are replaced by the young heroine Marie’s creepy clown dolls who descend from their shelf and dance– truly the stuff of nightmares.
It’s always fun to explore a ‘new’ theatre for the first time and the Pentameters is a lovely and very friendly above pub affair about a minute away from the Hampstead tube station with velvet scatter cushions on the seats (like a Hampstead Rosemary Branch). Entering the auditorium is like walking into a secret grotto and chocolate is very kindly given out. The set (designed by Alice Old and Amelia Marchant) has a really exuberant home-made quality, offering an exaggerated version of a perfectly traditional Christmas scene.
It’s undeniable that this ‘multi-sensory’ company throws just about everything except the kitchen sink into the production, reflecting the cast’s very varied backgrounds. Early nineteenth century Romanticism meets the New Romantics of the 1980s and it combines story telling, music and dance of all different kinds, video and shadow puppetry. A haunted mechanical remix of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s suite creepily illuminates the nature of Marie’s eccentric godfather Drosselmeir’s clockwork works of art (not toys) and the violin playing is beautiful- it’s a pity that more of the music isn’t played live.
Much of the show is pre-recorded (the sound is bit of a problem- the Mouse King’s rap is incomprehensible), which adds a layer of distance between the characters and audience and there’s an emphasis on developing the atmosphere at the expense of narrative and character. The shadow puppet re-telling of how the Nutcracker came into being (Katie Mitchell uses a similar device in her production of Beauty and the Beast) offers the kind of story that you can get immersed in, in contrast to the rather stilted writing that peppers the main narrative.
This love child of Tim Burton, Kate Bush and Sarah Brightman is definitely an avant-garde alternative to the usual festive fare. Butterfly Wheels clearly have a lot to offer and have created an excellent, striking aesthetic, but the dramatic qualities need quite a bit of fine tuning to really make the piece flow and feel complete. I can’t say that it’s the most lovable Christmas show around and it’s hard to pitch exactly what kind of audience it’s aimed at. It’s too scary and conceptual for very small children but the moody quality may well appeal to teenagers. An Amazon voucher has just turned up in my inbox and a copy of the original Hoffmann seems an excellent way of spending it.