Writer: Joshua Coley
Director: Luke Byrne
E T A Hoffmann’s short story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, has been adapted for the stage several times, most notably and memorably for Tchaikovsky’s ballet. But there has never been an adaptation quite like Joshua Coley’s raucous, and frequently filthy, adult panto.
Holly Ashman’s Carlie is a London girl who has had to deal with the death of her father, a pill-popping mother (Coley), and an incel ex-boyfriend who wants to get back together. Her uncle gets her a gift of a nutcracker in the shape of a soldier which, as in the story and ballet, can come to life. However, unlike all previous adaptations before it, the nuts this particular soldier is breaking are human ones.
The nutcracker’s encounter with Carlie’s ex-boyfriend Jack (Grace Whyte, in one of a number of impressively distinct roles) leaves the Andrew Tate-loving misogynist castrated, and desperate to get his family jewels back from Carlie and her, now human-sized, nutcracker (Theo Walker).
The narrative is refreshingly original, and Coley distributes the work among the cast of four to make this pocket-sized panto feel much larger than it really is. Coley’s acting work, perhaps closer to modern drag than to traditional Damehood, is also assured and confident. Whether it’s wisecracking with the audience or doing a startlingly accurate recreation of Patti Labelle’s famous 1996 “This Christmas” freakout – complete with mixed-up cue cards and frequent calls for background singers – Coley always has total control of the audience.
That energy feeds into the rest of the cast, with Whyte especially doing well as the comedy foil in many scenes. Ashman and Walker don’t have quite the same freedom, with Walker in particular being lumbered with an awkwardly mannered syntax to his speech patterns as the Nutcracker. It’s a creative decision seemingly chosen to emphasise the Nutcracker’s Pinocchio-like inhumanity, but it’s both inconsistently applied and unnecessary for a show that does not need to delve too deeply into the psyche of magical wooden creatures.
Indeed, whenever the panto moves away from the set pieces of most pantos and into the narrative drive of the framing story, the joke rate falls off and the quality level dips accordingly. There’s always the sense of a great piece of comedy just around the corner, but those spaces in between do begin to frustrate by the end.
That said, it is generally a fast-paced evening of adult childishness. There may be bigger, brasher, bolder and more bonkers adult pantomimes around London this season, but when the Turbine Theatre’s contribution gets going, it is appropriately cracking good fun.
Continues until 23 December 2023