Nutcracker!

Tchaikovsky's masterpiece is Bourne again at the Grand Opera House, writes Anne-Marie Marquess

Tchaikovsky is a name that most will be familiar with - that great Russian composer of the Romantic era, who brought us, among other things, the famous melodies in the timeless fairytale ballet The Nutcracker. 

The story and the ballet have been adapted many times. On this occasion, Matthew Bourne stages a unique, contemporary, colourful production that brings ballet bouncing into the modern day, with a visual feast of eye candy complete with dancing confectionery.

With a long history of shows to his name, dancer turned choreographer/director Bourne is best known for stirring the classical waters of Swan Lake, by controversially making the lead swan a male. Other productions include Mary Poppins and Edward Scissorhands, with Dorian Gray as an 'It Boy' in the pipeline.

Nutcracker! entertains and excites, departing from traditional ballet on many levels. The costumes, the dancing, the rehashed story line and all of the little idiosyncracies make this a fun, funky and fresh production.

Bourne himself states in the program:

'My version appeals to a contemporary/young audience as well as the older audience because, I think, the characters are people you can identify with. The more I see ballet versions of young boys in tights and rows of girls in frilly dresses and then look at the young people of today, the more I think "how does it relate to them?"'

The performance starts with a grey, dull orphanage room where the children are dressed in oversized dark smocks, forced to clean under the strict eye of the stern, stately and stiff matron. The mood is lightened when they start to put up Christmas decorations.

The rich kids that arrive are superb. Sugar and Fritz are spoiled brats that look down on the others. Sugar (Michela Meazza) is tall, dark and striking, one of the performance's notable characters. Her brother Fritz (Drew McOnie) is perhaps the most animated character in the entire cast, generating great comic moments.

The pivotal scene in the first act occurs when the children are sent to bed and Clara (Hannah Vassallo) gets up to look for toys. The wardrobe door busts open, the music hits a crescendo, the clock hands spin to midnight and standing there, larger than life, is the Nutcracker doll (James Leece). He proceeds to terrify everyone with moves that recall the clockwork doll in Chitty Bang Bang and Frankenstein’s monster, a mixture of flopping and marching.

Slightly deranged, the Nutcracker smacks his fists against the orphanage walls, which crack to reveal trees and ultraviolet light. Thunderous music and lightning-style cracks make for a scary atmosphere. The terrified children huddle together, backs against the wall before making their escape.

The frozen lake scene is all ice-skating and sparkling white costumes, reminiscent of 1950s Bing Crosby movies. The falling snow creates a wonderful effect. It's here that poor old Clara sees her beloved go off with Sugar.

On the road to Sweetieland, Clara is helped through her heartbreak by two cupids in blue striped pyjamas. The entrance to Sweetieland is a pair of hot lips, guarded by a Humbug bouncer. This is where we meet The Licquorice Trio, the Gobstoppers and The Marshmallow girls.

The most engaging character here is Knickerbocker Glory (Ashley Bain), delivering a bizarre, sizzling and seductive performance to dark folk-style Russian music, with rattlesnake sounds, while Clara tries to fight off his lewd advances. Complete with ice-cream style hair coiffeured into a peak, curly moustache and pink swirly jacket, Knickerbocker Glory is smooth, cool and crazy-looking.

Giant cakeAt the wedding party, a layered wedding cake fills the stage. This could be described as the more adult part of the show, complete with gyrating hips and giant candlesticks.

Clara's beloved has disappeared with Sugar, the moneyed sophisticate, and things don't look good for our troubled heroine. But in the land of fairytales, a happy ending is never far away. 

Hearkening back to The Wizard of Oz, the production ends as it began - in black and white, with the colourful Sweetieland having been just a dream. Or a sugar coated nightmare? Clara wakes up back in the orphanage, but soon finds her reality is about to change for the better.

What is wonderful about this production is the array of characters, the diversity, the vibrancy. Tall, short, dark, blonde, black, white: a dolly mixture of a cast, selected to create the perfect pick 'n' mix.

Spectacular costumes, imaginative hairstyles, fantastic acting, great sets - the stage is alive and it makes for superb entertainment. Accompanied by Tchaikovsky's spectacular score, sweets and toys comes to life with melodic precision. Ballet has truly been re-Bourne! This version of the Nutcracker's sweet!