The Nutcracker

Choreography Peter Wright, Vincent Redmond, Lev Ivanov

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Royal Albert Hall

From 28 December 2017 to 31 December 2017

Review by Vera Liber

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A blend of the old and the new, the press release calls Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker production at The Royal Albert Hall. Gone are their cosy sets; in place are video projections from 59 Productions, Peter Teigen’s searchlights strafing the auditorium and blitzing the floorshow stage and a Simon Callow voiceover, spelling things out for the five thousand plus audience.

Is a synopsis not enough for Sir Peter Wright’s much-loved production made for the BRB in 1990 (and in the Royal Ballet repertoire)? Does a Dr Coppélius automata creator Herr Doktor Drosselmeyer need a cod-German accented voice? Maybe David Bintley, whose adapted version this is, thinks it necessary in this vast arena venue.

So, an arena ballet it is—not in-the-round, but on a thrust stage. It does not warm the cockles of my heart. I do see the technical challenges for designer Dick Bird (setting and additional props)—no proscenium arch, no depth under the stage from which the tree could grow. Back wall mirrors provide some of the solution, multiplying the numbers on stage.

No orchestra pit either. The over-amplified orchestra (sound design Bobby Aitken, conductor Philip Ellis) is arranged above the action under the Hall’s grand organ, where Drosselmeyer also makes an appearance conducting matters below.

Do arrive early for the show. If you pay attention, there is much happening on the stage before the ballet proper starts. Through the windows of a Tardis-like building centre stage, Drosselmeyer’s atelier, one can see shadowy workmen beavering away, creating his magical dolls and chasing pesky rats.

A brazier is wheeled on, street people appear, the atelier turns round and Drosselmeyer’s assistant leaves en route for the Stahlbaum’s Christmas Eve party. Lights go up on a grand ballroom, tall French windows, footmen and maids bringing in chairs for the guests.

Soon it is filled with young and old, entertainment is brought on by Drosselmeyer—he is a kindly doll maker not a magician (his tricks are pretty elementary). Costumes are lovely. I particularly like Clara’s Mother’s rich red bustle dress—very upper class, as is the gift of a gem necklace. Harlequin, Columbine and Jack-in-the-Box’s (in particular) costumes remind me of Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadisches Ballett. Max Maslen is a delightful jumping Jack.

Midnight strikes—a clock face and electric volts ripple across the organ above, the Christmas tree vanishes, the stage is bare apart for the odd clockwork rat. The Mouse King is now King Rat, a richly frock-coated play-puppet naughty Fritz gets for Christmas. It dwarfs Clara’s tiny Nutcracker doll but is barely a threat.

So, how does the tree grow? What about that magical transformation scene? It is replaced by back-projection of huge branches on two panels either side of the organ as giant baubles descend from amongst the Hall’s white mushroom acoustic-diffusers. Doesn’t do it for me.

Snow falls (75kg of artificial snow is used for the run), as Clara is whisked off to the Land of Snow—not on a swan or by angels in a sleigh but on the arms of the four Winds. Designs for the swan are projected on the side panels to be replaced by a silvery forest scene. “Not easy to get to… the best way is to fly”, intones Callow…

The second act is very exposing—no set, an empty stage—thank goodness the dancing is excellent. Yijing Zhang’s Snow Fairy and Yaoqian Shang’s Rose Fairy are perfection; and Jenna Roberts is serenely majestic as the Sugar Plum Fairy, taking the Confituremburg Grand pas de deux at an unhurried pace on the arm of her Prince Tyrone Singleton (also the Nutcracker). Laura Day’s Clara watches in wonderment.

The pastiche national dances animate the audience at the same time as their designs are animated on the bookending screens, distracting the eye. The finale brings them all on stage, which creates a joyful buzz. “Was it all a sleepy girl’s dream or…” Imagine that in a spoof accent. I wonder what the German family sitting in front of me is thinking.

I am Nutcrackered out… Three in all… Happy New Year 2018!