What can you do with The Nutcracker? This perennial Christmas ballet has had more makeovers than any other. It’s been updated, gone retro, it’s even undergone psychoanalysis. The unique selling point of Christopher Hampson’s 2002 version for English National Ballet is its eye-popping designs by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe.
The set is a huge storybook; magician Drosselmeyer (Fabian Reimair, hamming up splendidly) opens the ballet by simply turning the first page. Thereafter its scenes are set against backdrops of bright, flat colours, chunky blocks of text and busy margins. Drosselmeyer is dressed as a cross between Gary Glitter and a pantomime wizard, young Clara (Maria Kochetkova, in a charming performance) sports a chic 20s skirt and bobbed copper hair. Father wears a lavender tailcoat lined with green, there’s a lady in a lurid orange puffball skirt, and a bishop and a colonel in outfits that look like collages of clashing wallpaper and fabric prints.
her tight trousersuit padded for effect (no ballerina has curves like that)
The visual riot may overwhelm the action, but there’s actually little substance to the party scene, which relies too much on one heavy-handed joke: Grandpa with his zimmerframe lusting after tarty gold-digger Ms V. Aggra, her tight trousersuit padded for effect (no ballerina has curves like that). Much better is the midnight transformation scene, imparting a real sense of magic as the Christmas tree grows bigger and bigger. The appearance of the Mouse King is a thrill, the parachuting soldiers a delight, and there’s both a shiver and a laugh when the snowflakes leap out – from the freezer compartment of a giant fridge. But again, the ideas overwhelm the rather flat choreography, which too often slides over the surface of the music instead of hitting its highs and lows.
Having awakened her strong-thighed Nutcracker Prince (Dmitri Gruzdyev), Clara is transported (via origami bird) to the Kingdom of Sweets, where she is entertained with dances from around the world. The company work hard to entertain us too, highlights being the boisterous Russian dance, the Chinese-takeaway number, and above all the big pas de deux, beautifully performed by the Prince and the Sugarplum Fairy (Daria Klimentova).
But they’re working against the odds. Scarfe’s designs are as spectacular here as in the first act, but that is the biggest flaw in this production: there’s no sense of journey between the acts. Instead of being transported from one world into another, we simply turn another page in a bumper book of eye-candy – leaving the ballet with little emotional pull or sense of wonder. Plenty of sparkle, then, but not much glow.