Almost two years to the day that we reviewed Matthew Bourne’s Red Shoes, we caught his adaptation of The Nutcracker – now titled Nutcracker! – at the Lowry.
Billed as “[The Nutcracker] reimagined for the 21st century”, Nutcracker! is an adaptation of one of the most famous ballets of all time – itself an adaptation of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.
With a score by Tchaikovsky, it’s flabbergasting that this now-prestigious ballet did not achieve notability until decades after it first premiered in 1892.
The New York City Ballet first performed The Nutcracker in 1954, but the holiday ballet did not begin to achieve its great popularity until after the George Balanchine staging became a hit in New York.
The ballet has had countless adaptations, so it is no surprise that the iconic choreographer Sir Matthew Bourne OBE has done his own take on it.
Bourne’s first production of The Nutcracker was for Opera North in 1992 as part of the work’s centenary celebrations. In my recent review of Opera North’s Carmen, I compared Opera North productions to Matthew Bourne ones, for both radically reinvent – and give relevance to – dates classics.
In 2002, it was substantially reworked in a major new production which helped to launch Bourne’s new Company, New Adventures. It has since become one of the the most popular productions in their repertory and probably the most successful single production of the piece ever produced in the UK.
Whilst the promo material for Nutcracker! is an explosion of pink, the show, itself, does not take this on until shortly into the second act.
The first act, for the most part, was beautifully bleak, with tantalising tones of bewitching black, weepy white, and ghoulish grey. It was not what I was expecting from this ballet, and this set went on for quite sometime, but this made the jarring jump to bright blue all the more striking.
My friend (and former writer), Urussa, said that she sometimes forgot that the dancers were dancing; it was as if they were just acting, albeit without talking and employing exaggerated expressions and massive movements. The dancers’ ability to communicate – to both each other and the audience – without saying anything was exceptional.
The nutcracker’s introduction in the first act was magical; his first scene was creepy and hilarious.
Finally, the monochrome palette was washed away with a beautiful blue, as we entered a dream world. The switch in colour and tone was brilliant, for it made us, the audience, feel like we were escaping a living nightmare and entering paradise.
Whilst the new setting was lovely, I felt myself longing for the pink. Then, the curtain fell, but after the interval, I was surprised to see more blue. It was clear that the promo pink (let’s call it that) was just from a certain scene; it was not a continuous part of the ballet. We were treated to a little bit of (light) pink, though – foreshadowing the pink paradise that was yet to come.
The scene in which the female protagonist attempts to enter the nutcracker’s wedding was majestic. With a backdrop that featured a giant mouth, the lips painted red, embodying the door, it was a real visual treat. The introduction to all of the eccentric guests were wonderful, though the first couple of introductions were a little long.
I loved how diverse and distinct all of the characters were, and perhaps now is a good time to mention just how incredible the costumes in this ballet were. The attention to detail in each design was exquisite. But this is what one expects of a Matthew Bourne production: whether you enjoy it or not (how could you not?!), you cannot possibly fault the work that goes into the production.
Once inside the wedding venue, the inside of the mouth turned into a mirror, allowing us a near-360 degree view of the fantastic female dancers onstage for this scene.
I can’t quite explain why this is so effective; it just was!
The pixie-like characters – they probably have a well-known name but I’m not cultured when it comes to ballet – were very entertaining. The contrast between their contrived expression (prim and proper) and them childishly pulling their faces at their leader whenever she turned her back was funny.
Whilst the dancing in this scene was more simple – relative to the piece as a whole, of course – it was some of my favourite. They resembled flamingos. I particularly loved the section of their dance where they fell out of synch and all did their own thing, be it sticking up a hand and tapping the air or bending over and flashing their backsides to the audience.
Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (one of the most iconic dances and pieces of music in ballet history) was a brilliant blend of delicacy and strength – which, I guess, ballet is all about.
As Bourne says himself, the success of The Nutcracker is largely because of Tchaikovsky’s sublime score. The music in this scene is particularly delightful. It soothed my soul and warmed my heart.
The most incredible scene of Nutcracker!, however, was the wedding scene. The stage lifted to reveal a ginormous cake which sat slanted – the ballet made great use of slanted staging and objects – with all of the guests sat proudly on each of its layers.
If the door scene was a visual treat, this was a visual delight. Grandiose, gorgeous and sumptuous, I could feel myself gleefully grinning.
We were overwhelmed with colour – especially the long-awaited pink. Whilst we had been showered with colour since the end of the first act, this felt like an overdose – in the best possible way – a signifier that this world was the complete opposite of the last one: the real one.
Sure enough, we were soon returned to the miserable hall where the ballet began – but unlike Carmen, Nutcracker! allowed a happy ending.
Weird, wacky and whimsical, Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! is a wonderful adaptation of a classic ballet. His ability to radically reimagine much-loved but dated pieces of art, whilst keeping the heart and spirit of the pieces alive, is next-to-none.