25 March 2012

Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker on tour

The three nice things about Wimbledon Theatre are it's a classic Victorian theatre that has been sympathetically updated, it is easy for me to get to by bus and, for reasons that escape me, it is considered to be out of London and so it attracts many good shows during their provincial tours after a successful spell in Central London.

That is why I found myself there to see Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker after its run at Sadler's Wells.

I missed the show then as I always felt that Nutcracker is a weak ballet with even less plot than usual and somewhat flimsy music. There are some nice tunes and some nice set pieces with nothing to string it together.

But if anybody can refresh a stale ballet it is Matthew Bourne.

The story opens in an orphanage where all the children are working hard cleaning and scrubbing before going to bed.

This takes you straight in to one of Matthew Bourne's strengths, ensemble dancing with the so stage full of action it is hard to know what to watch or who to follow. The scene is grim but the dancing is exuberant.

We then meet the orphanages owners and their two spoilt children. They bring simple decorations and a simpler tree in preparation for Christmas.

The real purpose of this is soon revealed when the orphanage's governors pay a visit and they distribute some equally simple present to the children.

In this version Clara's present is an ordinary doll, not a soldier. I'm not even sure that it is still a nutcracker, not that this is material to either version of the story.

Things then continue in the familiar vein with the doll getting broken, the toys being locked away for safe-keeping and Clara having a dream that features her doll come alive and the magical kingdom of Sweetieland.

There Bourne's production is a marked improvement on the original giving some narrative shape to a series of themed dances.

Here Clara is trying to gain entrance to a party but has no invitation. As she waits outside a series of genuine guests arrive and give us a display of their dancing skills before skipping inside. The burly doorman stops Clara from following each time.

Bourne gives these small groups of dancers exotic things to do but keeps well away from the weird. This is modern dance that is rooted in traditional dance.

Clara finally finds a way in where she finds all the other guests arrayed on a very pink layered cake that is leaning slightly as a cute angle.

Now the groups of dancers can interact again and we get more exhilarating ensemble dancing before the dream ends and we return to the orphanage.

There the doll is discovered to be still alive (he's a Prince, of course) and he and Clara escape from the orphanage as the curtain falls.

Matthew Bourne makes the most of Tchaikovsky's music throughout giving us bombast and grace as required while be continually innovative and thrilling. I must have looked like some sort of idiot because I was grinning with delight all the way through.

You could argue that Nutcracker is Matthew Bourne by the numbers but when the numbers are that good there is no reason to change a winning formula. This is not his best ballet, that's Swan Lake or maybe Edward Scissorhands, but it is still a far better ballet than most and is comfortably the best Nutcracker that I've seen.

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