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Friday 21st December 2007
Christmas Theatre Review | MATTHEW BOURNE'S NUTCRACKER! | Sadler's Wells Theatre [tour]

Production [tour]: Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker!
Original Scenario: Matthew Bourne, Martin Duncan & Anthony Ward
Producer: New Adventures
Venue: Sadler's Wells
Address: Rosebery Avenue, Islington, London EC1R 4TN
Box Office: +44 (0)870 737 7737
Dates: 13 December 2007 - 20 January 2008
Opened: 18 December 2007
Buy Theatre Tickets from Ticketmaster
Reviewed by Norman Tozer

At the end of an hour and 55 minutes (including a 20-minute interval) the capacity audience at Sadler's Wells gave a very warm welcome to this revival of Matthew Bourne's version of The Nutcracker. If your children are young and uncritical they will enjoy this sugar-pink performance for the good natured entertainment it sets out to be. But it is not what Matthew Bourne seems to claim for it.

He wants it to connect with young people today. Yet the images and situations he uses are almost as remote for today's youngsters as those associated with the Petipa/Ivanov productions of Imperialist Russia. The original starts in Klara's comfortable home on Christmas Eve, when a strange godfather (Drosselmeyer) gives her a nutcracker as a gift. Bourne's version starts in a bleak, Germanic surrealist version of a children's home of around 1910. Clara is indeed given a gift, of a doll, but by uncaring, visiting do-gooders invited by the home's horrible director (Bourne's equivalent to Drosselmeyer), aided by a nasty matron. Images of surreal and cubist German silent cinema abound as Herr Director's children taunt and bully Clara and the young inhabitants.

Regrettably, the action does not make clear the characters' relationships to each other or even make clear that it is Christmas! so if you don't pay for a programme, deciphering things can be difficult. Despite the bullying, Clara manages to keep her gift by hiding it in a cupboard and at the day's end, before she falls asleep, she remembers to retrieve it. But now it is a full-sized, handsome young man. Pandemonium ensues as he rouses all the children to rebel and take over the home, taking the management and its offspring into captivity or worse. The climax is a transformation scene of genuine impressiveness uncomfortable but not frightening.

For the rest, Clara is off to the land of 'Sweeties', a tad more sickly than the original. The weakness of the original was that, from this point on, the plotting was limited to a couple of flying journeys and a quick wind-up. The last 80 minutes or so was limited to divertissements. Bourne has even less plot in his version and a really puzzling ending.

For Bourne's divertissements the characters are almost exclusively sweets: Sherbet, Gobstoppers, Candy, a Humbug, Liquorice Allsorts, Marshmallows and a (cigarette-smoking) Knickerbocker Glory (a bit 50s for today's young audience?). There is some wit here but mostly in the visuals and about films. There is one giant reference to a Busby Berkeley number which is arresting but never goes beyond a single image and certainly isn't taken up in the choreography.

The choreography is not ballet, not contemporary, nor modern but closer to show-dancing than anything. In the opening children's home section the lines are elongated, the moves jumping or stabbing. Much of this continues in the later sections but broadens a little, often hugging the ground. Where the 19th century Russians sought lightness and a sense of travelling in air, Bourne's work in this production embraces the earth; it is not heavy but definitely grounded. His dancers need great flexibility to entwine, crawl, swell and slide.

But if the production's images are old-fashioned, they are effective and, with much sugar pink, Anthony Ward's designs brilliantly embody the concepts. They enhance the jokes and please the audience almost as much as the performances.

Amongst the performers there is much good work from the soloists yet nothing outstanding. And there are no outstanding personalities either. This is a hardworking company show but one where, as so often, the corps work is just a little ragged. Unusually, the choreography for the corps is mostly pair-work where the synchronization is largely with a partner and not the whole group.

And for admirers of the Tchaikovsky score (Bourne says he is one) there is good and bad news. The full score running time is about 115 minutes; Rowland Lee's arrangement for the 25-player orchestra gives us about 90 minutes of that. The overture starts, unfortunately, with what sounds like two inexpert string players (plus microphone) picking out the melody in a thin reedy sound totally exposed by the scoring I have not previously heard such an inauspicious start, even in a wartime variety theatre. After that, all is well woodwind-backed strings give an ample romantic melodic sweep and the brass is adequately firm. Brett Morris conducts with the skilled balance of tempi and drama that ballet conductors need.

I admire Mathew Bourne's work and aims but this is a 'miss'. The Petipa/Ivanov original could be problematic and vacuous enough but Bourne has made it seem even emptier. Yet I don't deny that taken as a whole this presentation is skilled enough to please a seasonal crowd. It goes on a UK tour late in January till May. I wonder if there will be enough uncritical audiences to fill the houses then.

Norman Tozer 2007

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