The Nutcracker (English National Ballet)

Published April 17, 2008

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without The Nutcracker. This ballet is as synonymous with the festive season as turkey and tinsel, and, just as you dust off your Christmas decorations every year, so the English National Ballet dusts off its Nutcracker, gives it a polish and puts it on display at the London Coliseum. Caroline Bishop went along to the first night, hoping to be immersed in that warm and fuzzy festive feeling…

Though the ballet has been part of the ENB’s Christmas season for 55 years, this particular production premiered in 2002. Choreographed by Christopher Hampson and designed by sardonic political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, this Nutcracker has a modern twist, filled with colourful creations conjured by Scarfe and a touch of adult humour sprinkled on the traditional children’s tale.

The story of Clara (danced by Maria Kochetkova) and her Nutcracker doll is neatly packaged in this production in the form of a story book. Drosselmeyer the magician (Fabian Reimair) is the narrator, introducing us to Clara’s world by turning the pages of a giant book. Within is the fantastical story, which is, in a nutshell: young Clara is given the Nutcracker doll at her parents’ Christmas party held on Christmas Eve, before falling asleep under the tree. Waking to find the room invaded by terrorist mice and the evil Mouse King, Clara is rescued by Drosselmeyer. Killing the Mouse King and kissing her Nutcracker doll to life, Clara and her prince (Dmitri Gruzdyev) fly off in a giant origami bird to meet an array of chocolate-box characters and the infamous Sugar Plum Fairy (Daria Klimentova).

In the programme Hampson says his starting point was Scarfe’s drawings, and the cartoonist’s influence is very evident in the assortment of quirky characters. The Christmas party guests are a pick ‘n’ mix of colour and eccentricities – the tartan-clad Grandpa with his holly-patterned underwear, and his younger girlfriend, who sports a white lycra catsuit and a fantastic Star Trek-style hairstyle, are stand-out Scarfe creations. With these two, Scarfe and Hampson have injected a bit of adult fun not normally seen in The Nutcracker; doddery Grandpa casts off his zimmerframe for cartwheels and dancing after being given a swig of a secret potion. If the allusion wasn’t enough, the programme reveals his girlfriend is called Ms V. Aggra. If only this had happened in the original Russian production in 1892 it might have had better reviews.

Scarfe’s characters continue with, among others, the scary, dramatic Mouse King and his gas mask-wearing mouse troops, half a dozen dancing ‘humbugs’ and an acrobatic blue bear. The sets, too, have cast off traditional shackles with wild abandon and convey the fantastical nature of the story through sunset colours, giant ice-cream cones, and in the memorable finale to Act One, an immense fridge with an equally immense lobster, from which the ENB dancers emerge like snowflakes, as the fridge light casts a magical glow.

Some hallowed elements have been left un-touched by Scarfe’s hand, however. The Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince look as traditional as their dances. Their pas de deux is a contrast to the modern choreography performed by Clara and Drosselmeyer, and both pairs go down well with the audience.

It may be 55 years since the first ENB production, but the Scarfe/Hampson creation has enough of the new to prove The Nutcracker can wow the kids of generation X-box, and enough humour to amuse their parents. The several rounds of applause proved too much for one boy though. “Ten hours later,” he muttered as the curtain finally came down. Some kids are just too hard to please.

The Nutcracker is at the London Coliseum until 1 January. 

CB