A New Adventure production
Music: Pyotr Illyich Tchaikowsky
Original scenario devised by Matthew Bourne, Martin Duncan and Anthony Ward
Orchestral Arrangements – Rowland Lee
Musical Director & Principal Conductor – Brett Morris
Sound Designer – Paul Groothuis
Lighting Designer – Howard Harrison
Designer – Anthony Ward
Directed and Choreographed by Matthew Bourne
6 December 2011 – 22 January 2012
A Review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!
This 20th Anniversary production of Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! has much to recommend it with its 19th century bleak orphanage opening setting, (rather than opulent mansion), and ultimate messages of love and the importance of believing in your dreams. However, what promises to be a truly original journey at the outset, following the misadventures of Bourne’s Dorothy like dark-braided Clara, after a solidly enjoyable Act I, in Act II, becomes as scattered as the toys of a toddler on Christmas, who’s gleefully, but inadvertently, buried them under an array of colourful boxes, bows and huge piles of festive wrapping.
SThat’s not to say the dancing in this production isn’t genuinely superb, or that the choreography isn’t finely realized trademark Bourne, with all of the well observed character nuances and miming that offers, which, truly, enhance the watching of any of his ballets. Being an enthusiast of Bourne’s work, my reluctant assessment of this at times, throw-back, typically (for Bourne) pastiche Nutcracker! is, no doubt more akin to being irrevocably spoiled by the powerful and haunting archetypes of his undisputed masterwork Swan Lake and/or the thrilling blend of pathos and romance of his evocatively realized WWII London Blitz set Cinderella which visibly kept the crowd enthralled at Sadler’s Wells last Christmas.
That said, the opening of Nutcracker! with its grey and black landscape, save a few sparse Christmas baubles hung for the sole purpose of momentarily impressing and misleading Dickensian wealthy patrons, seems more topical than ever. Granted, in more traditional interpretations, as in Bourne’s ballet, the action spills over into Clara’s dreams and his assessment of them is totally in keeping with the thinking of any teenage girl, in their being about hunky boys, rather than dolls, or Nutcrackers. Those portions of the ballet, in Act I ring ever so true and generate much laughter of recognition in response.
However, in Act II, it almost feels as though Bourne had become so elated at the promising start of his orphan Clara’s journey that he’s inadvertently lost his way. But even more traditional Nutcrackers meander, I hear you say, with their dancing sweets and writhing contortionists. Yes, but they don’t tend to wander, as Bourne has sometimes been prone to doing, very successfully, as it happens, on a number of occasions, through eras, making the ballet into a pastiche, as he also did somewhat in Edward Scissorhands. In that case, however, one was prepared to reflect on the Tim Burton film the ballet was derived from and in that way, that ballet works very well. Here, Nutcracker itself being something of an old chestnut, the field was open to interpretation, and it’s the trajectory of Bourne’s take that, to me, seems questionable.
Bourne has always been an innovator and in many ways, has brought ballet to the ‘people’ much in the way the late Lucianno Pavarotti brought opera to the masses – a very great and noble thing indeed, especially since once upon a time both arts belonged to them, in a sense, via vaudeville and Music Halls.
Shining unwaveringly in the limelight in all of her scenes is Bourne’s Clara personified, Hannah Vassalo, ever an apt combination of girlish wonder and young womanly angst, always, touchingly ladylike in her dancing persona. Bourne’s choreography alone would not embody those elements without Vassalo’s stunningly graceful input. Clara’s prince, the Nutcracker, in his original guise here, more like U.S. 1950’s ventriloquist dummy/TV star Howdy Doody, becomes everything a young girl could want in a paramour is likewise, beautifully danced by Chris Trenfield. His character enables the surprise ending that could only ever happen in Clara’s dreams, though that does not lessen its’ glib, well-meaning charm.
Act II contains several fluffed up scenes reflecting on celebrity culture featuring Ashley Shaw, as pink gowned Sugar, daughter of the Orphanage governor and aptly named Dominic North as her brother Fritz aka Prince Bun Bun. Both dancers perform their roles with dazzling comedic timing and precision, cloaked in, at times, seemingly, casually executed movements. Phil Jack Gardner and Sophia Hurdley also garner their share of laughs as two well-meaning, slightly tubby angels in pyjamas right out of a 1940’s film – possibly, Bourne’s nod to Christmas favourite It’s a Wonderful Life. Likewise, all of the dancers performing the roles of sweets coming to life in this frothy land play their parts well. But, for all of its sugary splendours, Act II is regrettably, about as momentarily satisfying as a high calorie sweet.
Sweet is a good word to describe the evocative Set Design of Anthony Ward, as to anyone with a sweet tooth, the mounds of confectionary framing and backing Act II look good enough to eat! The all important contrasts between Clara’s monotone orphanage life and her sweetly pastel dreamland are realized with all the embellishments, or, lack thereof, appropriate to each scenario especially as enhanced by the focused, imaginative Sound Design of Paul Groothuis, for the 2011/12 restaging, Greg Pink and Lighting of Howard Harrison, for this production, with input from Alistair Grant.
The orchestra, with Arrangements by Rowland Lee, does a fine job of interpreting Tchaikovsky’s seminal score, as Conducted by Musical Director, Brett Morris and the thunderous applause greeting him, and the company of dancers at the end of the performance was well deserved.
If things had continued paradoxically along the sparse, but beautifully emotive lines they first set out on in this ballet, rather than it, effectively, unwrapping itself into a fun, albeit, landmark piece in its day, it may have become something timelessly and indisputably great. Yet, for all its sidestepping, no matter how you slice its’ giant multi-tiered cake, this is a highly skilled piece of festive fluff, simultaneously regal and irreverent in bearing, fun in intention – an undeniably guilty, Christmas pleasure!
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