Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker at the New Theatre, 10th April 2012

Now in its twentieth year, Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker is very prominent in his company’s repertoire. As the overture begins, we are introduced to a succession of plainly dressed, downtrodden orphans – Clara is a child at Dr Dross’s orphanage, a grim Dickensian affair which sees the arrival of its governors one Christmas Eve. It is their distribution of presents, a nutcracker among them, that leads on to Clara’s dream, an elaborate and bizarre fantasy peopled with cakes and sweets and the Nutcracker as a handsome young man.

The new setting certainly gives the early scenes a very different atmosphere, dominated not by hurrying guests and a visiting magician but the black and white floor and twisted, expressionistic walls of the dormitory, presided over by the tall, pale Dr Dross in his Gothic tailcoat, his similarly nasty wife Matron and their two spoilt, bullying children – Fritz, his face set throughout in a priceless leer, and Sugar. Sweetieland gives us still more vivid characters – the languid, rather sleazy Knickerbocker Glory and the Liquorice Allsorts. The sets here, including a huge iced cake, have a childish garishness to them and are certainly not beautiful, but a childish joy can be found in watching the energetic series of turns which replaces the set of national dances, where the characters from the orphanage reappear – Dr and Mrs Dross as King Sherbet and Queen Candy, the orphanage toughs as the Gobstoppers and Fritz and his sister as Prince Bon Bon and Princess Sugar, whose rivalry with Clara over the Nutcracker lends the second act genuine pathos.

There are several moments of humour – the bespectacled, female boffin orphan dabbing the sweat from the brow of the similarly bespectacled male boffin orphan as he mends the Nutcracker doll, or the enormous mint humbug who lurches ponderously around the stage as the Sweetieland bouncer. Clara stands out among a selection of perfectly able character dancers as a one we can sympathise with. She mediates between us and the fantastical kingdom of sweets, face radiant with excitement on the Nutcracker’s appearance as a man, or tragic during his dances with her rival, while keeping a likable mischievousness about her in the opening scenes. Her new love for an orphan boy, the Nutcracker’s parallel, is very touching, as she shows him the brightly painted toy and opens and closes his mouth to mimic that of the doll.

The orphanage was chosen, Bourne tells us, as a setting from which escape is more significant – he likens the transition from reality to dream in the Petipa scenario to moving “from one idyllic fantasy to another”. But are there not sinister elements in the dream world in more familiar choreographies? Herr Drosselmeyer who introduces it is usually a little bit creepy and what of the mice? The van Schayk/Eagling version for ENB has some really horrible, skull-headed mice in it. In so far as the Nutcracker is about growing up and sexual awakening, it is also about how frightening this can be. Bourne’s Sweetieland does not do justice to a child’s capacity to frighten herself through her imagination, and while Bourne is not wrong in moving the frightening elements to the real world, it does make his version slightly less nuanced. While Bourne’s Nutcracker is tremendous fun and very enjoyable, more established versions still show us subtler things can be done with Tchaikovsky’s score.