sat 10/12/2016

The Nutcracker, Birmingham Royal Ballet, O2 Arena | reviews, news & interviews

The Nutcracker, Birmingham Royal Ballet, O2 Arena

The Nutcracker, Birmingham Royal Ballet, O2 Arena

The perfect production is left high and dry with X-Factor pixie Joe McElderry as baffling warm-up

It is one Nutcracker that seems to hold and delight a very wide age range from small innocents to worldly Blackberry-addicted ladettes
Ride a white swan: Clara's teenage dreams are gorgeously realised in Sir Peter Wright's production© Roy Smiljanic/BRB

It would always be a risk putting such a gossamer Christmas charmer as The Nutcracker into a gargantuan Mammonite cavern like the O2 Arena, where magic only counts if it rings loudly in the coffers - car park £25! programmes £10! As with the Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet last June, Birmingham Royal Ballet have put up a cinema screen to enable thousands of viewers far away to catch what looks dolls-house-sized in real view. But where that other ballet is all about action and plot, this is a ballet about atmospheres and dreams, needing most delicate weaving into its setting.

brb nutcracker rat fireplaceIf you sit in a £72 seat on the upper side close to the stage, as I did for 10 wretched minutes last night, you will see about a third of the scenery, virtually nothing of the big screen, and not a scrap of what the production can deliver. Fortunately for me, if unfortunately for BRB, there were many unoccupied spaces to enable a quick move to better positions, which rescues my review from a wholesale protest to a half-cheer.

A fullhearted cheer should be due for southerners at last having a view of this spectacularly designed Birmingham production, of sumptuous costuming, gripping visual atmosphere, and a normally fabulous transformation for the Christmas tree into an awesome corner of a giant’s pine forest, emitting fiery smoke like dragon’s breath while toy soldiers battle desperately with rats for possession of young Clara’s dream world. But if you don't sit square on, much of the punch of the designs is pulled in the arena adjustments.

No wonder BRB want to share this 21-year-old production by BRB’s former director Sir Peter Wright. It puts up all the dramatic questions that a child could ask for - will the rats eat all the toys? Is Dr Drosselmeyer a wizard? is the Nutcracker broken for ever? - and answers them all in picturesque and satisfyingly mysterious ways. We get proper magic tricks, King Rat is well caged and locked up by the soldiers (pictured below, photo Roy Smiljanic), the Nutcracker turns from a broken doll to a wounded young man whom Clara heals.

brb nutcracker rat in cageClara’s world of fantasy is poised with tremulous attractiveness between childhood and adulthood - just as the music swings violently from cataclysmic forces to most delicate lullabies and tinkling charms, so the production pits a 16-year-old sister against a 10-year-old little brother who is purest nuisance, keeps wanting to snatch and break her stuff, slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails. Perfect. As is the balance of all the ages at the Act 1 party, from tinies to old gramps, all with beautifully crafted and individualised dances by clever Wright.

Drosselmeyer too is perfect, the handsome godfather in a magnificent cloak who makes Christmas decorations hover miraculously in air and summons a swan to fly Clara to her Act 2 dreamland, where in among all the flowergirls and exotic maidens she identifies with, are men with big muscular thighs and Byronic hair, pouncing at the girls with ardent hurdling jumps, the acme of a teenage girl’s fantasy.

brb nutcracker snowflakes

All of this is romantically theatrical - for balletic purposes - and also psychologically sensitive. It is one Nutcracker that seems to hold and delight a very wide age range from small innocents to worldly Blackberry-addicted ladettes, on my observation of audience reactions the many times I’ve seen and loved this production.

However, the cheer freezes in the throat because of the considerable damage done to the stage experience - which was conceived with utmost care for the Birmingham Hippodrome - by transporting it to an arena of such alien sightlines and impersonality. There will have been people last night who paid a lot and saw little of the magic that this production is famous for. Another dropping eye for the baffling presence of X-Factor pixie Joe McElderry as warm-up act - walking lonely onto the vast black stage to sing us three carols in his soft, sugary voice and promote his new Christmas album, to get us in the mood for the imperial Russian classical ballet that is about to follow. A curious marketing message - you bought McElderry, so you'll love the Nutcracker trapped in perpetual adolescence in a wooden body?

nao sakuma by steve hansonI concede that this is all likely to be more disappointing for someone who is familiar with the production staged at its best than for a newcomer. Some qualities do survive, or even (surprisingly) emerge. The much larger stage caused the dancers of both sexes last night to urge themselves to much less polite and more thrilling jetés than they give in Birmingham - almost Russian attack. The fine Royal Ballet Sinfonia under conductor Koen Kessels beamed all Tchaikovsky’s musical jewels into the space spiritedly, cleanly and, in the right places, movingly. And the further back I moved to sit, the more the toy theatre effect of the distant view enhanced the very great extraordinariness and esoteric difference of classical ballet language and the lithe appeal of its performers. Which newcomers to ballet too may have sensed. But could they smell the sweet, pine-scented, fire-heated magic of the ballet The Nutcracker?

At such distance, only unusual vividness or articulacy can stand out - Robert Parker’s Drosselmeyer and James Barton as his assistant had the first, Nao Sakuma’s Sugar Plum Fairy (pictured right by Steve Hanson) showed the latter in the grand pas de deux with Cesar Morales. But the whole company gave an ebullient account and, if nothing else, I’d love to see them take this refreshed, larger-scale O2 momentum in their dancing back home.

Comments

Imense Brown what right have you to be so patronising as to have a go at Joe McElderry what has he done to you? he is one of the nicest well mannered young singers this country has ever produced, to call him an x-factor pixie is just nasty and callous, you call him names like that you call us the McElderryMassive you upset him you upset us and we do not take kindly to clever dicks like you who make nasty comments off the cuff. Why cannot you just comment on the show in general instead of having an unwelcome dig at Joe.

Actually I didn't get that Joe was being 'had a go at' ... I've seen much worse comments about the poor lad than this. I think what was said is, they didn't understand the link between the ballet production and having Joe sing. I'm going to see the production myself this week so am looking forward to seeing Joe too, an added bonus in my eyes. Joe is an incredible young man, very talented, very dignified and not a bad word to say about anyone, I do sometimes think that 'fans' such as yourself comment more because they want people to see their names, rather than defending Joe. He really doesn't need defending, he can stand up for himself and you really aren't doing him any favours acting like he is made out of candy floss and will disintegrate with any critisism. Enjoy Joe's success and stop looking for negative comments, your responding to articles such as this makes them stand out more, this wasn't a negative press for Joe but it certainly looks that way now.

The reason for young Joe's involvement was the sposorship money gained from Universal Music to offset the financial loss from poor audiences. The biggest problem with his involvement was that his advisors sent him on stage with the dress and demeanour of a technician about to test the microphone! Why did he not ask the audience to join in with his carols ... and why did he not introduce the story of the first act of the ballet? It is no wonder that because they are so poorly managed many talented young artists quickly sink into obscurity

I'm a Joe Mcelderry fan but can appreciate he may not be to everyone's taste and people are entitled to their own opinion. You can't force someone to like something they don't. So I tend to agree here. Enjoy the positive remarks, but don't get hung up over the negatives...life's a bit too short and as Sugarplum says, it doesn't bode well to have a go at those who are simply stating their opinion. Joe's a grown man. He's learnt to deal with negative reviews, so it might be just as well to follow his example. #McelderryMassive :-)

Remember, this is a free country with so-called freedom of speech, where everyone is entitled to their own opinion. People do get angry/upset oh so easily nowadays because others have a different opinion then theirs! You have your opinion, Ms Brown has hers and there is no law (as yet) that we all have to have the same opinion. How boring would life become.

Saw the Nutcracker for the first time ever last night at the O2 and was absolutely blown away by the production. We had excellent seats, pretty much straight ahead of the stage, slightly on the rise and the set was absolutely stunning. I saw R&J here earlier in the year and was immensely disappointed. It's hard not to sound snobbish when your complaint is that the performance was constantly interrupted by people waltzing in and out, talking, getting food, drink etc. but the bottom line is that it ruined the performance. This didn't seem to be the case last night, maybe because it was a much shorter ballet, but everyone seemed engrossed. It is hard to translate a production such as this to an arena the size of the O2, but I understand why they do it, and you know what you're signing up to, so can't really complain too much. Likewise, even in good seats your attention gets drawn to the screen as you can better see the close ups, but a couple of times I realised that I'd been missing the 'overall scene', which was large and lavish (I actually missed the scene change between the home and the forest like this). What I can complain about though is the impromptu performance by Joe McElderry...I DID NOT SIGN UP FOR THAT! I felt a little hoodwinked TBH: "Oh, but while we've got you here, how's about being sold some two bit karaoke carols"....felt like I'd gone for a glass of wine on holiday and was now being sold a time-share. Oh, and an interval which lasts longer than either of the two acts surely can't be right??!!

Not quite certain why there is so much emphasis on the performance of Joe McEldery rather than THE BALLET and The Nutcracker. The use of Joe as is said could be due to sponsorship which is needed for such a large venue, but what he did on stage must be the choice of the Producer of The Nutcracker, as far as Joe being a karaoke singer that is far from the Truth as was proven on Pop Star to Opera Star and his recent UK Tour. The complaints about the use of the O2, it has been used for Ballet before, I presume the idea is to attract and introduce a lot larger wide audience. £10 for a programme, that is the current cost now at most productions, so nothing new there. The full review and comments do smell of some snobbery which as a big fan of Ballet though usually the ENB and all tastes of music including pop I find most disappointing, the full review seem post Christmas blues and does not do justice to what was a superb performance from a great Ballet company.

"Not quite certain why there is so much emphasis on the performance of Joe McEldery rather than THE BALLET and The Nutcracker." No, except that a big thing was made of him appearing. It felt very incongruous to me: I'm sure people who'd been influenced by his presence would have preferred more than 3 songs, while those of us who'd booked before he was announced probably weren't that fussed anyway. There didn't seem to be any relation between his performance and the ballet: maybe some more secular Victorian-era carols rather than "O Come All Ye Faithful" (and in Latin, at that!) might have been more appropriate (of course, I haven't heard the album, so I don't know what's actually on there), and maybe a small choir rather than just one singer might have bridged the gap better. True, the O2 has been used for ballet before, but only the once so far. I'm not sure whether it has a real future as a ballet venue: as far as I can see so far, you're either sitting below stage level, at 90 degrees to the action or miles away from the stage - none of those are ideal. I've far preferred ENB's productions in the round at the Albert Hall, but that's a different kettle of fish altogether, and a much smaller venue. If you go to ENB's normal productions, though, you'll be aware that their (and BRB's and the Royal Ballet's) programmes are usually around the £5/6 mark rather than a tenner. Anyway, I enjoyed the performance, despite having to crane round the head of the woman in front of me to see anything!

I just saw a video of Joe McElderry's final performance at the O2. He was singing 'Oh Holy Night'. It was simply stunning. If you don't want to hear Christmas carols sung after Christmas, take it up with the artistic director, but as far as I can see, those who attended got an extra treat.

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