Score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, adaptation by Matthew Bourne, Martin Duncan and Anthony Ward
The Lowry, Salford
The pandemic necessitated New Adventures postponing their scheduled tour of Nutcracker!. This may account for a rather sweet prologue: as the overture plays and before the curtain rises, the cast in character wander on stage shyly greeting, and reacting to the presence of, the audience with delight, awe or downright terror. It is a charming portrayal of a company very glad to be back on the boards.
On Christmas Eve, the orphans at Dr. Dross’s orphanage entertain prospective sponsors with a dance. The orphans are bullied by Dr. Dross’s spoilt children: the thuggish Fritz (Dominic North) and the sweet but cruel Sugar (Ashley Shaw). The spirited Clara (Cordelia Braithwaite) dares defy a curfew to rescue a damaged doll and is stunned when it becomes animate and transforms into the hero Nutcracker (Harrison Dowzell) who leads the orphans in rebellion and towards freedom in fairy-tale Sweetieland.
However, despite the assistance of a pair of somewhat exasperated cupids (Keenan Fletcher and Katrina Lyndon), Clara finds the course of true love does not run smooth as Nutcracker is seduced by Princess Sugar who has a striking resemblance to her nemesis from the orphanage.
The use of an exclamation mark in the title gives fair warning Nutcracker! is not a subtle production. The designs by Anthony Ward (who co-wrote the script with Matthew Bourne and Martin Duncan) are garish and brash, pushing characters towards being grotesque. Dr. Dross and the Matron, with sharp shoulder pads, long leather coat and riding crop, look, and behave, like cartoon wardens in a particularly kinky prison.
In the second act, Sweetieland is a sugar-saturated fantasy for orphans deprived of sweetness. The centrepiece is a massive wedding cake but the characters themselves are dressed as types of sweets. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is hilariously performed by a troupe of pink marshmallows twittering bird-like around the stage behaving as if they are clueless tourists or dim debutants.
Matthew Bourne’s choreography differs between the two acts. In the first, it serves as a storytelling technique—dancers on a frozen winter lake are hunched over, shuffling rhythmically as if skating on ice. The crumbling orphanage wall serves as a practical expression of freedom, creating an expanded space in which the cast can dance. In the second act, the choreography is more dramatic allowing the troupe freedom to really express their characters through movement. Bourne is credited with making dance appealing to a wide audience and does not limit his choice of styles to traditional ballet. The crash-helmeted Gobstoppers bounce around the stage head-banging to heavy metal only they can hear.
Despite the over-the-top staging, Nutcracker! is anchored in harsh reality which allows for dramatic tension. There is the realistic likelihood Princess Sugar, with a confidence generated by her privileged upbringing, is going to triumph over the spirited but insecure Clara. Dance is a physical genre, yet it is surprising how much of the story is communicated not by movement but by the highly expressive facial reactions of the cast. Ashley Shaw, smugly serene in her self-confidence, and Cordelia Braithwaite, determined but lacking self-assurance and openly vulnerable, are an excellent pair of adversaries. Keenan Fletcher and Katrina Lyndon briskly moving around with a no-nonsense ‘oh-no-not-again’ attitude make a great comic duo.
Nutcracker! allows the audience to share the pleasure of New Adventures at returning to the stage, making it an ideal show for the festive season.
Reviewer: David Cunningham