Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! – Milton Keynes Theatre

Reviewer: Kerrie Walters

Director and Choreographer: Matthew Bourne

Music: Tchaikovsky

Originally devised in 1992, Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!is a vivid reworking of the classical ballet set to Tchaikovsky’s epic score. Bourne successfully bridges the gap between classical ballet, modern danceand popular theatre. Unlike other ballets, this version of The Nutcracker! has been brought to life with a fusion of traditional well-performed ballet, sprinkled with samplings from a range of other styles such as flamenco, mime, breakdance, and the Commedia Dell’Arte. It is bold, brashy and at points absurd, but it is nevertheless a thrilling watch.

The story of The Nutcracker! follows Clara (Cordelia Braithwaite), a young orphan who is gifted a toy nutcracker as wealthy benefactors visit the orphanage, only to have it cruelly taken back from her when they leave by the evil Dr Dross (Danny Reubens) and Mrs Dross (Steph Billers). When she unwittingly brings the nutcracker to life, we take a magical journey through Clara’s imagination into the effervescent world of Sweetieland.

The show bursts into action with a fantastically juvenile lineup establishing the social hierarchy of the orphanage and each of the children’s different social groups. This is particularly clever as it directly mirrors the characters that they shall later become when we arrive in Sweetieland.

The arrival of the bratty antagonists Fritz (Dominic North) and Sugar (Ashley Shaw) brings with it a masterclass in physical characterisation. As a pair, they have excellent chemistry and operate across the stage as a kind of Newton’s cradle constantly pushing one another into another selfish outrageous act. Shaw is seemingly weightless as she takes on the intricacies of the highly comical first scene choreography. Together they create a schoolyard brutishness that plays out well against the innocence of the orphans.

During the first act, in the Presents and Party Pieces scene, we see the children of the orphanage put through their paces using a range of playground apparatus such as hula hoops and skipping ropes. This is choreographed to be a mix between a circus and a military-inspired segment. It perfectly captures the juxtaposition between the children’s innocence and the brutal nature of their reality in the orphanage. Sugar gets more than she bargains for when she attempts to steal Clara’s doll only to find that it is alive, as the nutcracker (Harrison Dowzell) swings the door open, frightfully suspended with minimal articulation.

More ventriloquist doll than traditional nutcracker in appearance, Dowzell parades around the stage with a sinister prowess. He rescues Clara from the orphanage, by cracking the set in half, exposing the earlier discarded Christmas tree which has grown to gargantuan proportions, and we are then treated to a wildly sadistic imagined torture sequence, an inversion of the Presents and Party Pieces scene, where the orphans revolt against their oppressors using the skipping ropes and hula hoops that had been maliciously confiscated.

Act one comes to an end with a dreamy sequence on a frozen lake. The colour palette of Howard Harrison’s stunning lighting design goes from dingy greys and purples to clean white and sky-blue hues as Clara escapes to freedom in her own imagination. The Nutcracker! can be read as a story of sexual awakening and first love: as they venture together into the magic land of her imagination, the grotesque appearance of the doll is shed and replaced by a shirtless Dowzell literally sweeping her off her feet. As Braithwaite is lifted around the stage there is tangible sexual tension between them. In a particularly masculine piece of choreography during The Frozen Lake, the nutcracker lifts Clara using one arm and flexes his bicep in an impressive yet comical show of strength. As the scene builds, the ensemble begins to flood the stage and we see a silky ice-skating sequence complete with snowball fights, fresh powdery snowfall set against soft billowing smoke. As the frozen lake is left behind, we embark on a psychedelic trip to the realm of Sweetieland.

All the earlier characters are reimagined in the second act as sweets with fluffy marshmallow girls, flamenco liquorice all sorts and a Knickerbocker Glory (Jonathan Luke Baker) that is a cross between Pepe Le Pew and the Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. The Knickerbocker Glory section is sleazy and comical as he tries to seduce Clara by blowing smoke in her face. As he writhes around the floor and his limbs slither all over Clara she visibly bristles and although it is humorous and danced flawlessly, in places it is a little uncomfortable to watch.

Bourne has not shied away from the surreal in his offering and it is a joy to watch. But there are points in the show where the flow is interrupted by lighting and scene transitions. Also, at the end of act two, the audience is left in darkness for far too long whilst sets are unnecessarily moved for the final bows. Whilst this is clearly to convey the right aesthetic, it is not necessary and would have worked just as well in the orphanage set in place at the end of the show.

However, as a piece of escapism, The Nutcracker! is a must-see. A bright pink ball of energy that isn’t afraid to get weird. An excellent family night out.

Runs Until 19 February 2022 and touring

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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