My tweet on the way to seeing Birmingham Royal Ballet Nutcracker…
“Oh the joy of travelling on the Chilterns line to Brum & the prospect of the best Nutcracker in the land – @BRB’s. Not prejudging, of course!”
And I’m pleased to say that joy was indeed delivered and I continue to think of this as the best Nutcracker in the land. I still remember the premiere and Peter Wright, with his trade-mark bright red shirt, stalking the back of the stalls to see what his production looked like and how we were enjoying it. “Thank you” I said as I rushed by to get to the bar first and he smiled. It was 1990 and the company had just taken the momentous step of moving from London to Birmingham, renaming itself in the process, and the Nutcracker was Wright’s gift (as Director) to the City for its wholehearted support and generosity in making it all happen. And from the off we all knew it was a worthy gift and 24 years on it’s still routinely called the best by all who have seen a few.
The BRB Nutcracker seems to fire on all cylinders – its tone is traditional to its finger tips and Peter Wright particularly wanted it to be Clara’s story and her awakening. (The programme has some excellent notes and interviews on the production by Ismene Brown). But we also have glorious design and it all feels in scale with life. The Stahlbaum’s household is rich for sure, but their house is not palatial and it all feels the more real and the extraordinary things that happen the more amazing for it. The first act designs, by John Macfarlane, are cosy and heavy Victorian, rich and sumptuous, but the transformation scene, to use popular language is just totes amazeballs. The tree is bigger than any other I’ve seen, the transition usually faultless and it ends with the entrance of the King Rat striding out of the enormous fireplace in a blaze of light, smoke and Tchaikovsky. Utterly spine-tingling.
The Act 2, Land of Snow, also delivers, if perhaps it towers less above what other productions manage compared to Act 1. Here there is the feeling of unforced elegance and ballet from an earlier time before legs did 180 degrees at every opportunity. The Russian Dance aside, the national dances tend to be thoughtfully pleasant rather than bravura displays and there was a lovely example of communication between pit and stage with conductor Paul Murphy holding a last note a second or two longer to see the 3 Arabian dancers nicely into the wings. A good account by the RB Sinfonia. The traditional ballet virtues are to be seen in the tutus as well, which have full ruffled bottoms to preserve modesty when new tutus (and leotards) so often seem to run the risk of turning into G-strings, which is rather at odds with elegant decorum.
I saw the first performance of this year’s Hippodrome season and there was the odd fluff of steps you expect, but somehow one is in a different mindset for the Nutcracker and it all felt the more human and charming for it. Wright’s created a robust piece which will come up shining no matter what. The performance was led out by Elisha Willis and Cesar Morales, she a wonderfully glamorous and old-school Sugar Plum, think Grace Kelly, and he a light, free-flowing and most attentive Prince. They are well matched physically and their moves mirrored unusually well too.
Ones thing’s for sure; it will be a brave director that decides to put a fresh Nutcracker on the company. Personally I think it’s safe for at least another 24 years.