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The Nutcracker: Northern Ballet – Palace Theatre, Manchester

Music: Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky

Director and Choreography: David Nixon

Conductor: John Pryce-Jones

Reviewer: Peter Jacobs

The Public Reviews Rating: ★★★★½

The Nutcracker may be something of a Christmas cliché but it is one of the popular standards of the classical repertoire and is a show so Christmassy that it is hard to imagine any company choosing to programme it at any other time of year. Originally premiered in St Petersburg in December 1892 (it was not initially considered a success) and based on a short story entitled ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’, The Nutcracker was commissioned following the success of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty and has become one of the composer’s most popular works. The story is simple: the Edwards family gather with guests before Christmas; the children are playful and excited. Their Uncle Drosselmeyer arrives with gifts for young Clara and her brother, one of which is a wooden soldier doll that doubles as a nutcracker. At the end of the evening Clara goes to bed leaving the nutcracker doll by the Christmas tree. Unseen, Uncle Drosselmeyer casts some magic. Clara sneaks downstairs to the tree and finds herself in a magical kingdom – or is it all a dream?

It may be sentimental or even a little silly but there is little to dislike about The Nutcracker, and this production is lively, vivid and delightful. Usually set in the Victorian era – even Matthew Bourne set his Nutcracker! in a Victorian orphanage – David Nixon has set his Nutcracker in the Regency period. This gives the family settings in Act I a very pleasing sort of Jane Austen familiarity. The empire-line gowns of the ladies and girls and the high-cut jackets of the gentlemen and boys are elegant and well-suited to dancing, creating lots of movement without being restrictive. This period also seems to put the ballroom dancing in context and works well with the chinoiserie designs of the later scenes. The costumes are beautiful in pastel shades of eggshell, powder blue, palest pink, ivory and mint green – bright colours are reserved for the fantasia to follow, only the vivid lining of Drosselmeyer’s coat giving a hint of the magic to come. The opening ensemble scenes as the family gather, the servants bustle, the children play and the party begins are beautifully done and wonderfully acted. The Northern Ballet’s company is bolstered by young dancers from their classical training programme, but the main company has sufficient breadth that the soloists playing Clara (Pippa Moore), her brother (Jeremy Curnier) and his friend are able to pass convincingly as children, while their parents and grandparents (played by Dreda Blow and Martin Bell) are able to stand out clearly and convince as older grown-ups. Pippa Moore is especially effective as Clara. She manages to be full of wonder and excited innocence without seeming at all irksome. Her dancing is skillful and clearly communicates the character’s youth, and the relationship with the other characters and the Nutcracker Prince (a very likeable Ashley Dixon) is suitably tender and innocent. Of course the most challenging choreography does not belong to Clara but to her older sister when later seen as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Julie Charlet’s Fairy is delightful and her duets in Act II with her cavalier, a strong and elegant John Hull, are lyrical and technically impressive.

The Act II characters are splendidly realised. Clara’s fantasy land is essentially a series of set-piece dances from around the world but they are a sequence of genuine delights. The snowfall is magical, the moon and stars are enchanting and the dances themselves – set to what almost sounds like Tchaikovsky’s greatest hits so familiar are the tunes – are bright and clean and performed with great skill, technique and charm. Of particular note are the Arabian dance – all serene strength and acrobatic lifts by Yi Song, Hannah Bateman and Tobias Batley – the Chinese dance, full of angular fluidity and bodypopping by Sebastian Loe and Ben Mitchell, and the (Waltz of the) Flowers. But the Russian dance is full of energy, the Snowflakes are suitably ethereal and the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier have already been noted.

All in all, this production of The Nutcracker is a Christmas treat. The wafer-thin story doesn’t matter as the show is bright with the spirit of Christmas; the music – wonderfully played by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia – is fabulous; and the soloists and ensemble cast of the Northern Ballet are full of skill and charm and personality.

It may be a Christmas cliché but the Northern Ballet’s Nutcracker is a real Christmas treat full of warmth and wit and genuine sentiment. Take someone to see it and feel the Yuletide magic awaken.

Runs until 27 November

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The Public Reviews was set up in 2007. We aim to review all professional types of theatre, whether that be Commercial, Repertory or Fringe as well as Comedy, Music, Gigs etc.