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‘Will put a warm glow in your heart’: THE NUTCRACKER – Birmingham Royal Ballet (Online review)

For the nation’s theatres just days before Christmas there is very little to feel festive about in what should be their most lucrative period of the year. Instead, with much of the country moved to Tier 3 and even 4 with 24 hours notice in many cases pantos are off, Christmas concerts closed down and yuletide fayre mothballed. In a year of yo-yo opening, the reorientation to digital performance has been one of 2020’s defining features so it seems appropriate that the final posts of the year celebrate companies denied a physical audience but determined to present their work online.

Last week the Old Vic premiered its latest version of A Christmas Carol while later this week Leicester Curve show their delayed production of Sunset Boulevard captured live. And for one week only, Birmingham Royal Ballet presents their pared down 90-minute production of The Nutcracker and if anything will make you feel Christmassy, then this new approach co-managed by Carlos Acosta and Sean Foley will put a warm glow in your heart.

Originally scheduled to run at the REP for two weeks followed by a stint at the Royal Albert Hall – previously cancelled when the restrictions of Tier 2 allowed insufficient venue capacity to profitably stage the show – The Nutcracker is everything you could want at the end of this glum and gloomy December. Full of Christmas magic, it combines three choreographic visions and celebrates 30 years since Sir Peter Wright’s first Birmingham Nutcracker which was then adapted for the Royal Albert Hall by Sir David Bintley and now reconfigured once more for the REP smaller stage and proscenium by latest director of the ballet Acosta whose first season has been so pointedly disrupted.

That there have been three heads in the mix over three decades is barely noticeable and this version of the story flows seamlessly, creating the requisite feeling of magical transformation and escape while drawing out some of the darker hints beneath the surface of the story. The use of masks for the pre-transformed Nutcracker and Sweets is disturbing while the small but vitally disruptive purpose of King Rat casts a notable shadow over the gleeful revelry of the various party scenes. That evil and ugliness will be defeated by the beauty and kindness of the reanimated toys and the heroine Clara is never in doubt but the visual experience of this Nutcracker notes that there must be some darkness for good to triumph.

There is also the smallest flavour of what it means to be a child and an adult, so here the usually girlish Clara is more certainly on the cusp of womanhood, still playing with dolls perhaps but flirting and flattered by the attentions of the young soldier who dances with her at the family Christmas Eve gathering in Act One. Performed by Max Maslen, this young man seems quite besotted and unwilling to leave his charming companion at the end of the night. Later when the Nutcracker (Gus Payne) comes to life, whisking Clara away to the magical Land of Sweets, there is a suggestion of chemistry between them that fizzes beyond that of innocent object and owner enhanced by Tchaikovsky’s stirring score.

Clara’s personal rites of passage transformation seems complete in Act Two when the four Arabian dancers perform a rather sultry piece focused on the seductive qualities of the pivotal female figure (Eilis Small) who falls eagerly into the arms of her three male companions danced by Haoliang Fang, Callum Findlay-White and Alexander Yap. Alongside the more comedic and romantic presentation of international confectionery, this suggestion that Clara is becoming more worldly and thereby more womanly is notable and casts a slightly different light than the chocolate-box adaptations often seen.

Staging The Nutcracker

Based on John Macfarlane’s original designs for Birmingham Royal Ballet, eschewing some of the twinklier approaches, this 2020 production is a painterly vision that makes each of the three set-piece locations feel tonally and stylistically aligned. It opens with a huge painted backdrop of a Victorian London street, a vision in watercolour at twilight as the sun sets on Christmas Eve and the first lamps are lit. It is instantly grounding for the viewer, immersing us in this familiar wintry scene as the soldierly guests heading for the Stahlbaum party have a snowball fight before giving way to the plush and cosy interior of the family home dominated by a giant Christmas tree.

Colour is vital to the coherence of the production and the deep burgundy room feels comforting, matched in the stunning costume design for Clara’s mother by Elaine Garlick, a vision in maroon with scarlet ruffles. Later the Spanish dancers and the fairies wear a similar hue in the Land of Sweets where the painted backdrop of burgundy, teal and gold with renaissance sun design echoes some of the colour choices used throughout the production helping to transport the viewer between worlds as each of the set pieces comes alive on screen.

Vitally, these backdrops are designed to be evocative but not to overpower the dancing, so the richness of Macfarlane’s artistry compliments and enhances the physical performance with costumes and choreography designed to stand out against the simplicity of the staging. Other versions of The Nutcracker can tend towards the elaborate, silver coaches, glittering tutus and as many dramatic flourishes as possible, but Acosta and Foley’s vision manages to achieve the same sumptuous effect with far less complexity.

The fight between the Nutcracker Doll and the Rat King is a centre piece moment, focusing on the swordplay between them but Macfarlane introduces hints of dissension and war with a Les Miserables-inspired red cloud that moves across the now projected Christmas tree. Enhanced by Johnny Westall-Eyre’s lighting and the red sashes across tailcoats worn by the flag-waving Rat army , it cleverly and in minimalist form implies a mood of revolution. Visual simplicity also enhances the Pine Forest scene at the end of Act One, becoming a Swan Lake-like vision in white as snowflake dancers in softer, loose skirts fill the stage with activity led by Alys Shee as the Snow Fairy. Mcfarlane’s backdrop is a flat screen of white and silver branches or arteries, crossing and linking into one another against which this beautiful scene unfolds.

Storytelling, Choreography and Performance

A perennial children’s favourite, The Nutcracker is one of the simplest stories and most of the plot occurs in Act One with the magician Drosselmeyer (Jonathan Payn) transforming the family party, the revivified Nutcracker doll coming to life and the defeat of the Rat King, while Act Two is an extended celebration of dance as various Sweets perform their routines. While this Birmingham Royal Ballet digital version is slightly reduced, it loses nothing in narrative clarity with each character and event made clear through the choreography.

Dance, of course, is a visual language all of its own but there are many cross-overs with opera and, particularly in this case, with theatre. There are lots of characterful roles on offer that require acting skill from the Company, not least Payn’s Drosselmeyer who dances very little but must mutely perform a variety of magic tricks for the Christmas Eve gathering while later commanding the transmogrification of inanimate objects to make them a physical and celebratory presence in Clara’s dream. Payn’s performance is pitched just right, grand gestures that are exuberant enough to suggest his showmanship (and possibly his arrogance) that suit the imaginative fantasy of the story, but nonetheless generously focused on Clara experience.

The creation of a family is neatly done and while the dancing is relatively limited in the opening sequence, the bustle of the Stahlbaum’s party, the distinction between guests and children as well as the various social niceties that shape people’s interaction are well suggested. The range of emotional experiences from joy to boredom, frustration to relief are often comical as Clara in particular must fight off the over eager and destructive attentions of her younger brother Fritz (Ben Whittaker-Brown) while her parents indulge and then chastise their children (Small and Valentin Olovyannikov). Acosta and Foley’s production has precision in its creation of people and place that gives even the casual viewer a structure to follow as the story unfolds.

That clarity becomes even more important in the extended dance sequences in the Pine Forest and the Land of Sweets where the corps de ballet take on a variety of different roles including the soldiers, snowflakes, fairies and global sweet selection. The style in each of these sections is slightly different while needing to be a unified whole as Clara and the Nutcracker journey through the magical realm. And choreography becomes important in achieving this, using a stilted wooden doll effect for the first appearance of the marching Nutcracker, later replicated in the opening sequence of Act Two as stiff-limb creatures are slowly brought to life by the magician.

The Land of Sweets has some of the most famous music in ballet and even if this is your first Nutcracker many of the segments will be familiar. Each of the international dance sets has its own unique style and tone, from the sprightly Spanish dancers (Beatrice Parma, Gabriel Anderson and Kit Holder) to the coordinated and energetic showcase of the Russian trio (Ryan Felix, Gus Payne and Shuailun Wu), the sultry Arabian group and the humorous bounce of the Chinese duo (Maslen and Tzu-Chao Chou). Momoko Hirata and Cesar Morales as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince create a fairy-tale pas de deux to conclude the charming celebration of dance.

All of this hinges around Karla Doorbar’s Clara who pins the show together with a performance that treads the line between girlish glee and excitement about the experiences opening-up before her and the development of a more knowing response to the world. Fantasy and escape from both the irritations of her family but also from her own childhood are strongly conveyed in Doorbar’s Clara as she is transported and transformed within the story.

Premiering on Friday evening and now available on demand until Christmas Eve, this Birmingham Royal Ballet production of The Nutcracker includes an introduction to the Company and a brief overview of the story for viewers new to the ballet and a very interesting short interval video that goes behind the scenes at rehearsal to show Covid precautions including masks and use of video platforms to give rehearsal notes. There are also short interviews with some of the Principles, the younger cast members and retiring Assistant Director Marion Tait who talks about the genesis of this version over the last 30 years.

While Tier 3 and 4 venues remain closed those like the Old Vic, Leicester Curve and the Birmingham Royal Ballet have been able to reorientate new work for a digital international audience providing much needed support at a crucial time. Integral to the festive Birmingham experience, the chance to watch this delightful production of The Nutcracker from home is a rare silver lining in an otherwise troubled month for the performing arts and a chance to sprinkle a bit of the socially distant Christmas magic we all need to end the year.

The Nutcracker is available on demand from Birmingham Royal Ballet until 24 December with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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