The Nutcracker

Choreography Peter Wright after Lev Ivanov, music Pyotr Tchaikovsky

The Royal Ballet

Royal Opera House

From 05 December 2017 to 10 January 2018

Review by Vera Liber

Search for tickets

If you must see a Nutcracker this festive season make it this one, rich in décor, orchestra, technical skill, technique and casting (many casts to savour, not a dud amongst them): no money has been spared.

From the very first notes of Tchaikovsky’s familiar dreamy overture we know we are in a magical place, and all’s well with the world. If only. Magical, a word I could well be overusing in this review.

The whole production runs on castors just like those marzipan Christmas tree angels that take Clara and Drosselmeyer’s nephew Hans-Peter to the Sugar Plum Kingdom. Not a longueur in sight from bustling beginning to glorious end.

Peter Wright’s 1984 Royal Ballet production, spruced up in 1991 for Birmingham Royal Ballet, seems to have been tightened even more. More than thirty years old and fresh as a daisy.

Gary Avis’s Drosselmeyer, the maker of mechanical toys and deus ex machina who propels the story along, is another prime reason for seeing this charming production. I think I’d like him as my godfather. However many times I see him in this role I never tire of it. Lucky Clara.

But, poor Drosselmeyer, he is pining for his nephew who has been turned into a wooden Nutcracker by a wicked Mouse spell. To break the spell and return him to normality, he needs someone to defeat the Mouse King and show genuine care for him.

That’s the plan and who better than his goddaughter to implement it, which Clara does by walloping the gold-maned Mouse King on the head with her slipper. But I’m running ahead of myself. Children might like to know that the mice are not scary, but funny little things stretchered away as quickly as they fall.

The first act family Christmas Eve party, Julia Trevelyan Oman’s design all Biedermeier sepia, is a hive of activity, as it should be. Saint Nicholas comes with his mummers but does not linger.

The family and guests dance in a cosy familial way, even the servants decorating the tree at the back are dancing—there’s depth and attention to detail for you. The statistics are astonishing: “100 children, 200 wigs and hairpieces, 2 kilos of glitter”. Wonders are performed behind the scenes and in front.

Drosselmeyer’s magical tricks and swirling glitter-trimmed turquoise cloak do the business of levitation in every sense. Clara falls in love with her Nutcracker doll, as do the other little girls with their dolls in a gentle cradling dance. Principal Francesca Hayward, not much taller than the other children, fits in beautifully, dancing with a joyous musicality.

Hans-Peter (Alexander Campbell a perfect match for Hayward) returns to human form, the owl clock is stopped at midnight, and Drosselmeyer, with the help of a team of angels and a sledge, takes the two youngsters on a trip through the Land of Snow, where they dance in the snowdrift of its two dozen hoar-frosted snowflakes, to the Kingdom of Sweets, where they weave in and out of the dances put on specially for them.

Drosselmeyer is nothing if not a hands-on magus. And Hans-Peter is quite the chatterbox relating his story to his Sugar Plum hosts in extended mime.

In their crystal palace, which if you watch closely you’ll see its model brought on in the first act by Drosselmeyer’s assistant (a masked David Yudes on buoyant form), the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince treat their guests of honour to a wonderful display of acrobatic dances from around the world. Melissa Hamilton is at her supple best in the Arabian.

And finally, the pièce de resistance, a treat for the classical ballet-mad, the 1892 Imperial Russian grand pas de deux: Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov draw every nuance out of the celesta adagio music in a mesmerising feat of heavenly perfection.

The dream ends and Clara is back curled up under the clock, where she’d sneaked down in the night to see her new doll. Stepping out shivering on the doorstep, who should she see but a lost Hans-Peter. Chivalrous as ever, he gives her his cloak, and she has a sense she knows him from somewhere.

Drosselmeyer is overjoyed that his spell has worked as he welcomes his dear nephew back home. And so are we, caught in the enchantment of the music and the dance. Love is in the air.