Bah humbug. It’s Nutcracker season. For some people, the onset of Christmas is marked by the John Lewis advertisement or the straggly tree that goes up on the high street. For balletgoers, it’s the sudden rash of sugar-coated productions that appear on stage.
The Nutcracker was, famously, a flop when it first appeared in 1892, vanishing quickly from the repertory. “I like the plot very little,” said Tchaikovsky, of the traditional story, which breaks the ballet into two difficult halves – a children’s party in the first act and a trip to the magical kingdom of sweets in the second.
But it’s his own fault that the ballet has persisted to its current level of ubiquity. His score is a glory, full of tunes that everyone can recognise. Who can forget the music when the Christmas tree grows, or the rapturous final pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince? Yet the narrative remains intractable.
The Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet and Northern Ballet all have traditional Nutcrackers this year, all of which will be beautifully danced and full of tinselly magic. But the productions I like most are those that keep the music but rethink the plot, such as Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut and Matthew Bourne’s inventive production, which opens in an orphanage.
To that group I’d now add Drew McOnie’s Nutcracker, an up close and personal cabaret version with a radically imagined and knockout score by Cassie Kinoshi, played by a superb four-piece jazz band in the intimate pop-up space beneath London’s Royal Festival Hall with general cheer.
McOnie, just announced as new artistic director of Regent’s Park Open Air theatre, keeps the shape of the story but refashions it into the tale of young Clive (danced on the night I was there by Mark Samaras), locked in Christmas Eve battles with his distracted father over his preference for a purple fairy to an Action Man. When Clive sleeps, both figures come to life and whisk him to Dreamland, a steamy, sensual and joyful place of possibility and love.
Rudolf Nureyev made a version of The Nutcracker explicitly about its heroine Clara’s sexual awakening, and McOnie plays with the same idea. But the glory of his vision, sumptuously realised by Soutra Gilmour’s smoky orange design and rich, sequined costumes by Ryan Dawson Laight, is that it combines this with a great deal of fun.
When Clive appears to his Action Man (Amonik Melaco) in tight shorts and a Superman cape, or when the Sugar Plum Fairy staggers tipsily, or when snowflakes jump across the stage scattering paper snow and then appear with leaf blowers to clear it up, there’s a lovely sense of being winked at, included in the joke.
The choreography is slick and clever. The variations are inspired by the colours of the drinks Action Man is sipping, which conjure figures such as a red satin-clad pair of tango dancers who slink across the floor, a languorous woman in orange chiffon and a wild yellow figure in a little hat who pirouettes with eye-catching speed. The dancers – six of them, working extraordinarily hard – rise to every jeté and finely shaped duet. It’s an immersive experience seeing them so close, and one that holds you in a very warm embrace.
Nutcracker is at the Tuff Nutt Jazz Club, Level 1, Royal Festival Hall, London, until 6 January 2024