tue 23/07/2024

The Nutcracker, Royal Ballet | reviews, news & interviews

The Nutcracker, Royal Ballet

The Nutcracker, Royal Ballet

Faultless production works its magic afresh

Christmas magic: angels, sweets and snowflakes adorn Peter Wright's evergreen Royal Ballet 'Nutcracker'© Laurie Lewis

With its hybrid Romantic-kitschy plot, chocolate-advert Tchaikovksy tunes, and baggage of obligatory Christmas cheer, the Nutcracker is harder to get right than you might think if you've only ever seen Sir Peter Wright's Royal Ballet version, now over 30 years old and still practically perfect in every way.

The production is the result of research into the St Petersburg original, as well as revisions added 15 years ago to incorporate ideas from the Nutcracker Wright did for Birmingham Royal Ballet, but it feels as effortless, inevitable and magical as a fairytale's "once upon a time". Part of the credit goes to Wright's story treatment, which neatly solves the inherent disjunction between the story-heavy first act and dance-heavy second by getting Drosselmeyer as a magician to direct everything, and having Clara and the Nutcracker dance in the Kingdom of the Sweets rather than merely watching.

It's a masterclass in doing a classic well, and will leave children and adults alike in buoyant Christmas spirits 

But even the best story is nothing if not told well, and the dancers of the Royal Ballet do it marvellously. Tall Gary Avis as Drosselmeyer is your favourite friendly-mysterious uncle (a touch of the Peter Capaldi Doctor about him), and Alexander Campbell is charming as his Nutcracker-shaped nephew, clean and sparkling as a penny whistle in his red and gold uniform and executing big jumps with all the flair of a principal. Francesca Hayward is a gifted young ballerina on the rise at the company, having made her debut as MacMillan's Juliet earlier this season, and while I admired her Clara two years ago, this year I was even more delighted.

Petite and wide-eyed enough to play a child, but with a mature confidence in her musicality and deliciously nonchalant technical competence that position this Clara carefully on the same cusp of adult sensuality as Juliet, Hayward lights up the stage whenever she's on it (which is most of the time) and, with Campbell, makes the pas de deux just before the Land of Ice and Snow one of the dance highlights of the entire show, a delicious snapshot of innocent romance. Though visiting Romanian principal Iana Salenko as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Royal Ballet's own Steven McRae as her prince are both exquisitely refined in the Petipa/Ivanov grand pas de deux that crowns Act II, it is recalling the fresh happiness of Hayward and Campbell that still makes me smile two days later.

There are plenty of other reasons to smile when thinking of this production, with Wright, his designer Julia Trevelyan-Oman, and the production team all unsparingly ladling on loving details. An owl-shaped clock that moves its head! A snowy North German townscape straight off a marzipan tin! An enormous Christmas tree whose doubling in size would surely delight even the grinchiest grown-up! Glitter that falls out of Drosselmeyer's hat, and cloak, and hands, and the sky! My personal favourite is the Mouse King's sexy gold mohican, which with his spray-on tights and extra-long tail gives him a raffish David Bowie air that makes up for a total lack of scariness in the mice vs soldiers confrontation.

Boris Gruzin's conducting is rather workaday – how I would love to hear new music director Koen Kessels work his life-bringing magic on the score, but only audiences in Birmingham will have that treat this Christmas season. Still, no-one seeing the Royal Ballet Nutcracker is going to feel short-changed: it's a masterclass in doing a classic well, and will leave children and adults alike in buoyant Christmas spirits.


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