Nutcracker

Concept Wayne Eagling & Toer van Schayk, choreography Eagling, music Tchaikovsky
English National Ballet
London Coliseum

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Julia Conway as Clara and Francesco Gabriele Frola as the Nephew in Nutcracker Credit: Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet in Nutcracker Credit: Laurent Liotardo
Fernando Carratalá Coloma as Nutcracker and James Streeter as Mouse King in Nutcracker Credit: Laurent Liotardo
Julia Conway as Clara, Francesco Gabriele Frola as the Nephew and Fabian Reimair as Drosselmeyer in Nutcracker in Nutcracker Credit: Laurent Liotardo
Francesco Gabriele Frola as the Nephew in Nutcracker Credit: Laurent Liotardo
Julia Conway as Clara and Francesco Gabriele Frola as the Nephew in Nutcracker Credit: Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet in Nutcracker Credit: Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet in Nutcracker Credit: Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet in Nutcracker Credit: Laurent Liotardo

It’s the music that always brings me back to any Nutcracker—it never lets you down. Neither does the English National Ballet Philharmonic under the experienced baton of Gavin Sutherland.

Watch and listen to how he paces the tempo for Soloist Julia Conway in the lead role during her gala worthy Grand Pas with her Prince, Lead Principal Francesco Gabriele Frola (reminds me of Ivan Putrov). It’s the best part of the evening—strong lifts, great manège from Frola, determined, slow and careful fouettés from her.

Out for a good time, the audience, as bubbly as the glasses of wine they bring in, many first-timers I’m guessing, love them. The audience is never wrong and the ballet is a great money-spinner for the company. Nutcracker is a must on the Christmas calendar. But, here’s the rub, having reviewed this now twelve-year-old production in 2019, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012—with some illustrious casts (Vadim Muntagirov, Daria Klimentová, Alina Cojocaru, Cesar Corrales and more)—I’m seeing its fading glory. Is it time to refresh or re-invent?

Changing casts often do that, but with political correctness entering the fray—we have lost the Arabian dance, yet the Chinese still retain their pigtails and the Russians are still with us—this Nutcracker is already being eroded. And what about the gender issue—girls with their dolls and boys with their sabres and soldiers… And caricature grandparents…

Of course it’s all cartoonish caricature and wishful thinking—that’s what fantasy is. It’s called suspending one’s disbelief. Drosselmeyer (Fabian Reimair) is in Mozartian period costume in contrast to the Edwardian others—why? Is Drosselmeyer meant to be Hoffman doing his magic? Facilitating Clara’s Freudian dream? Hoffman wrote the original in 1816, which in turn gave us Tchaikovsky and Petipa’s 1892 version based on Alexandre Dumas père’s adaptation. And so it goes.

No matter, the opening skating scene immediately puts us in the chocolate box mood, as do the swirling snowflakes and Snowflakes (a bit clunky). A story of two halves: the family Christmas party, its events foreshadowing Clara’s romantic dream and the fairy tale dances in the second. She does not overcome evil by bopping the Mouse King over the head with her shoe, he makes it to the Land of Snow and is despatched by the Nephew / Nutcracker.

Clara and brother Freddie wake up the morning after the party, hug and tell each other their dreams in mime—he of a Mouse King with a horrible mask. She, on the cusp of maturity, falling in love with Drosselmeyer’s Nephew and her Nutcracker doll (quite an ugly doll with clumsy feet)—confusing the two.

Confusing for little ones in the audience I’d have thought, too. One minute it's the Nutcracker (Fernando Carratalá Coloma) behind the curtain, the next it's the Nephew. Thank goodness this time the two dancers are of similar physique.

Ten couples (girls in pink) a bit wayward with their leaps in the long Waltz of the Flowers, the contentious national dances (Katja Khaniukova stunning in the Chinese, Daniel McCormick flashy in the Spanish and Benjamin Cockwell’s great splits jumps in the Russian), and the wonderful Precious Adams in her Mirliton duet with Drosselmeyer, make up the second half.

There seem to be some last minute changes in the smaller roles, as I think I spot an uncredited Rhys Antoni Yeomans in the Chinese and Clara as a child is Poppy Kennedy, otherwise the cast is almost the same as press night a week ago. Conway, who won Emerging Dancer in 2019, takes on Clara with diligence and an expressive face.

Talking of which, the Emerging Dancer competition is being paused till 2024 to give Artistic Director Designate, Aaron S Watkin, and his team time to find their feet. Watkin takes up his position in August 2023.

Tamara Rojo is gone and maybe that's why the evening feels lacklustre, however hard James Streeter hams up his Mouse King, especially during curtain call. The hot air balloon that took them to the Land of Snow with the Mouse King clinging to its underbelly now sails happily in the sky as Clara and brother Freddie (Alfie Napolitano) greet the morning after the fantasy night before.

As always, the children from Tring Park School for the Performing Arts are to be complimented—what a treat for them to take to the stage. Though their little rats and mice are very tame. As is this production now. Still, in our uncertain times, with the particularly dangerous flashpoint in Ukraine, a bit of traditional escapism is welcome.

Reviewer: Vera Liber