Nutcracker! at Sadler’s Wells
Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! swaps the upper-class Christmas party of the standard version for a Dickensian orphanage run by the strict Mr and Mrs Dross. The orphans wear frumpy grey dresses, they sweep and scrub the floors and are bullied by the owners’ two spoiled children, Sugar and Fritz. It’s Christmas Eve and they’re having a modest party, presumably to show off to the local rich folk. Their tree is scraggly and only has three ornaments. The lighting is an icy blue, the walls are pale and everything looks like the “cold” tone on an Instagram filter.
The Nutcracker who (spoiler alert) turns into a handsome prince is replaced by a Goosebumps-style ventriloquist dummy, so it’s truly unnerving when he comes to life, legs moving first, stiff and out of pace with his torso as if he is just learning to walk. A shattering effect cracks the walls and gives a warped fun-house vibe.
The contrast between the orphanage and Frozen Lake and Sweetieland is emphasised by the differences in colour tones. Everyone wears white or black at the orphanage, the lighting is chilly and the set is sparse; the fantasy world has warmth and saturation up to a max, and the costumes are beautifully jazzed up with vibrant pinks, yellows and glitter (though they’re not gaudy). The marshmallow girls are dressed in luscious soft pinks, and Queen Candy is dazzling. The set and costumes are wonderfully designed, and perfectly complement each scene or character.
Sensuality is explored in an innovative way. Nutcracker! is all about sweets, and in this version people are literally licking each other and the set. Some of the dance moves are quite sexualised, especially during a very different Waltz of the Flowers, where the dancers perform on a multi-layered (and very pink) wedding cake.
Nutcracker! has more of a story than the original: there is conflict and rejection, and it’s not clear if the heroine is going to end up with the prince or if the privileged are always going to have the upper hand. A lot can be inferred from the cast’s facial expressions, from Clara’s discomfort to Princess Sugar’s smug cruelty – the characters have depth here, and one finds oneself emotionally invested.
This production incorporates more traditional, classical ballet choreography than some of Bourne’s works, but it still has his signature style of contemporary, flexible movements, with an emphasis on small, comical nods or kicks. Vanity is explored in the Sugar Plum Fairy sequence, with the dancers reflected back at themselves by mirrors. The character of Knickerbocker Glory is a perfect combination of sleaze and sensuality, and his duet with Clara is seamless. The dancing is splendid, but the what really sets Nutcracker! apart is the acting and the way the performers own the stage with stunning presence all around.
This version of The Nutcracker is brighter, bolder and more emotional than the usual, but it is unmistakably the classic story. It is more grown-up, but still makes the viewer feel like a kid. We need escapism more than ever this year, so if it is safe to do so, book a ticket to SweetieLand and get your Christmas fix.
Photos: Johan Persson
Nutcracker! is at Sadler’s Wells from 17th December until 30th January 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.