By Michael Garner courtesy of English National Ballet
When Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker was first produced in St Petersburg in 1892, it was critically panned. The storyline, based on a fairy tale written by a German civil servant, is more or less nonsense and results in two disjointed acts that bear very little relation to one another. But Russians can be overly serious and the early critics missed the point completely, as proven by the Nutcracker’s enduring popularity with the public. The story is meant to be childish, and simply provides an excuse to hang together some wonderful music and even more wonderful dancing.
The English National Ballet’s Nutcracker opened at the Coliseum last night to a much more receptive audience. Gerald Scarfe’s production starts to work its magic as soon as the curtain is raised. The cartoonish Technicolor costumes and sets seem to deliberately bring Disney classics of yesteryear to mind, and the brilliantly designed set with its oversize book and props make you feel small and juvenile again. The effect instils a childlike sense of wonder that allows you to suspend disbelief, wash off your adult cynicism and join Clara on her adventure.
The Christmas party of the first act borrows heavily from pantomime and contains some genuine laugh out loud moments. It's good to see that the ENB isn’t above including a dodgy pun in the list of characters or a fat suit gag. It may not be a deliberate anti-war message, but we found the battle between jackbooted soldiers and gasmask wearing mice genuinely disturbing, which shows just how effective the costumes, and the dancers wearing them, are. The second act is more traditional and contains the serious dances, including the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy which brought the audience to a reverent hush. Not to detract from the principals' performances, it was first artist Vadim Muntagirov in the relatively minor role of the Russian dancing bear who provided the highlight - his incredible leaps and twists eliciting whoops of delight from the audience.
This production of the Nutcracker is a brilliant way to test the waters if you’re a bit of a ballet-sceptic. The visually rich and hilarious costumes of the first act ease you into it while avoiding the tutus and codpieces, and the second act provides an assortment of dances and music that are simply stunning. This production has been known to anger ballet traditionalists, but it has now clocked up over 200 performances and is still going strong... frankly, if they don't like it they should go live in 1890's Russia.
The Nutcracker runs from 16th Dec to 3rd January at the Coliseum. Tickets from £10, and on Dec 17 2.30pm kids go free (that's today!)