The English National Ballet (ENB) Nutcracker is a bit of alright and it’s almost bound to send you home happier than you arrived. That’s always good of course, but we all need cheering up even more just now as the Covid news becomes ever bleaker again. I thought carefully about seeing the show, but took all the preclusions I sensibly could and was really glad to be there. A ballet about dreams and transformation, the Tchaikovsky music alone wafts you along to a different place.
But when I say this Nutcracker is a “bit of alright” I mean that more literally than normal – some bits are more than alright and some bits can seem the result of annoyingly perplexing choices. The arc of choreographer Wayne Eagling’s Nutcracker seems good; starting in Clara’s bedroom, opening out to the house surrounded by snow and ending similarly makes much dramatic sense of a day in the life of a young girl. Ditto having the Mouse King as a recurring and haunting character throughout the work, rather than just there for the fight, makes much more of a troubling and scary character. The opening party scenes generally roll by entertainingly well, if Drosselmeyer needs more and better magic. But Drosselmeyer’s balloon is a great and magical hit and I love it that Clara becomes the Sugar Plum Fairy. Finally, the choreography for the corps in the Land of Snow and Waltz of the Flowers is particularly uplifting.
The production is based on a narrative/concept by Wayne Eagling and Toer van Schayk with designs by the well-known Peter Farmer. They’ve changed what is normally The Land of Sweets into what feels like an unloved down-at-heal puppet theatre. Deeply unmagical and echoing a weak Christmas tree and transformation – buried at the back of the stage it only seemed to grow a couple of inches from where I was sitting. Another misjudgement is the Nutcracker doll – a walking robot given a cheap makeover; I can’t imagine any young girl really being pleased to get it as a gift. The narrative is also rather hampered by Clara having two men in her life – the Nutcracker come to life and Drosselmeyer’s Nephew who becomes the Prince for the big Sugar Plum number. What’s perplexing is that they interchange and share stage duties, though I guess it’s a dream and dreams are sometimes like that.
But regardless of the patchy narrative and design, what brings it all to life are the ENB dancers. Every year they give their all to the company’s long-running Nutcracker tradition and this was no different, despite Covid necessitating casting change, a position that won’t get easier, I fancy. Erina Takahashi, as the older Clara, is the star of the show and brought old-school glamour to a beautifully assured and musical performance. Over 25 years she has grown as a ballerina and more than earns her spurs at the top of the company. She was partnered by Francesco Gabriele Frola (standing in for a Covid-hit Joseph Caley). He seemed powerful in his solos if less good as a partner, but the circumstances were clearly unhelpful. And plaudits to young Clara too, student Annalise Wainwright-Jones, for a delightfully naturalistic portrayal of a young girl – it’s she and Erina who take us on a fantastical journey, a bit weird at times, but fantastical none-the-less, and much appreciated.