Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! at Sadler’s Wells


Neil Westmoreland (Dr Dross – some dates), Reece Causton (Dr Dross – some dates), Danny Reubens (Dr Dross – some dates), Madelaine Brennan (Mrs Dross – some dates), Daisy May Kemp (Mrs Dross – some dates), Steph Billers(Mrs Dross – some dates), Ashley Shaw (Sugar – some dates), Monique Jonas (Sugar – some dates), Dominic North (Fritz – some dates), James Lovell (Fritz – some dates), Stephen Murray (Fritz – some dates), Cordelia Braithwaite(Clara – some dates), Katrina Lyndon (Clara – some dates), Harrison Dowzell(Philbert/Nutcracker – some dates), Ben Brown(Philbert/Nutcracker – some dates), Jonathon Luke Baker, Ben Bazeley, Alistair Beattie, Isaac Bowry, Kayla Collymore, Keenan Fletcher, Cameron Flynn, Rose Goddard, Shoko Ito, Harry Ondrak-Wright, Catrin Thomas, Bryony Wood

Matthew Bourne – Director & Choreographer
Etta Murfitt – associate director
Anthony Ward – Design
Howard Harrison – Lighting
Rowland Lee – Orchestral arrangements
Brett Morris – Musical Director

5 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 15 December, 2021
Venue: Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London

There are dozens upon dozens of versions of The Nutcracker but only a handful are truly successful visions of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score – in the classical world Peter Wright’s productions stand tall and in ‘modern’ dance Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut is a classic.  That exclusive list also includes Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!, now celebrating its thirtieth anniversary with a seasonal sojourn at Sadler’s Wells in a refreshed version.  Quite simply, it is a delight.  The combination of the music, played with dash and verve by a smallish orchestra under Brett Morris, Anthony Ward’s splendid designs and Bourne’s own unflagging scenic and choreographic invention, make for the most enjoyable of evenings out.

From the first moments as the children of Dr Dross’s Orphanage for Waifs and Strays (played by adult dancers) emerge one by one from the wings and look with varying emotions at the audience, one sits back in the knowledge that this is going to be fun.  And it most certainly is.  If anything, Bourne has pulled off the ultimate challenge of making the first Act of Nutcracker interesting – he gives his cast so much to do in terms of dancing, movement, characterisation, incident and narrative, that one enters wholly into this fantasy world peopled with grotesques.

The cast-members live up to their director’s demands, coalescing into a coherent ensemble without sacrificing their own personalities and movement idiosyncrasies.  Daisy May Kemp is the most chilling of matrons, a toxic blend of Cruella de Vil and Nurse Ratched, while Danny Reuben’s oleaginous Dr Dross slithers his sycophantic way around the orphanage’s governors before cruelly disposing of the moth-eaten Christmas tree out of a window once they are gone. Delicious. Their brattish daughter and son Sugar and Fritz are played to the full by Cordelia Braithwaite and Dominic North, ever unable to resist the urge to bully the orphans who must pay them court.

Bourne and Ward save coups de théâtre a-plenty for the ‘transformation’, the details of which our critic will omit to detail in case the reader is yet to see them. Suffice to say that the swell of Tchaikovsky’s music is matched scenically with a scenario and stage-picture which are not a little unsettling, the stuff of children’s nightmarish fantasy. Indeed, it is this aspect of Nutcracker! which lies at the heart of its success: Bourne and his collaborators have succeeded in blending the joyousness of childhood with the stirrings of adolescence, innocent delights with burgeoning sexual desire.  This piece becomes Clara’s fantasy, full of her first love for the Nutcracker, but is at times peopled with multiple copies of him, bare-chested, strong-thighed men who flex their muscles and glory in their masculinity.  Of course, this being Bourne, it is all sent up magnificently, but it is still there.  Equally, in Sweetieland, the sweets are perhaps the most lascivious pick-and-mix selection one could imagine – everything, and indeed, everyone is edible, which leads to more stroking and licking than could otherwise be conceived in a family show; sugared bottoms are wiggled, candy crotches thrust and sugar-rush leers duly delivered.  In the hands of another, it could all tip over into something else, but Bourne is sure-handed in his treatment and it remains on the right side of the line.

The ‘lead’ quartet are magnificent, experienced Bourne performers all, from Ashley Shaw’s Sugar who progresses from Baby Jane to femme fatale and Dominic North’s capricious, sexually lascivious Fritz, a brilliantly naughty portrayal, to Cordelia Braithwaite’s much put-upon but utterly delightful Clara and Harrison Dowzell’s hunk Nutcracker, whose Act II solo shows what a really good dancer he is.  Jonathon Luke Baker plays a predatory Knickerbocker Glory, part Terry-Thomas, part Lewis Carroll’s Caterpillar and Monique Jonas is a deeply sultry Allsort – two dancers in a universally good company.

Nutcracker! is one of Bourne’s best works, not least because he shows equal invention in ensemble work as in solo and duet – nowhere is this more apparent than in the Frozen Lake section which closes the first Act.  Here he combines a homage to Frederick Ashton’s ballet Les Patineurs with Sonja Henie’s ice-dance film spectaculars of the 1930s and 40s in a truly satisfying pas d’action.

Nutcracker! succeeds on every level, satisfying the ballet-goer with its numerous references to the genre and extended dance sections as much as the theatre-goer with a clear and fast-moving narrative and sure sense of scenic effect.  As a show in difficult times, it is hard to think of anything which is more enjoyable.

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