The Nutcracker was the entry point for many into ballet, either via excitable school trips or through benevolent relations. It’s the perfect length, Tchaikovsky’s chocolate box music is delightful (and probably familiar) and the plot is simple. On Christmas Eve, Clara defeats the evil mouse king to rescue her nutcracker, who is transformed into a prince and rewards her with a flying visit to the realm of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Party. The end. Wayne Eagling’s 2010 version for English National Ballet, however, risks confusing those new to ballet – and a few more experienced hands – thanks to muddled storytelling.  

This is the tenth ENB Nutcracker staging, a ballet mounted every year by the company since its formation (initially as London Festival Ballet) in 1950. It opens as prettily as any Christmas card, with rollerblading ice-skaters zipping along a frozen Thames on their way to a party in a grand, Edwardian mansion. Inside though, Peter Farmer’s Act I set looks drab and two-dimensional, not aided by dull lighting. Key moments go for nothing – the growth of the Christmas tree is particularly disappointing –  but it’s not until the chimes of midnight that things become unclear.

Until this point, Clara and her brother (Freddie) have been danced by children, Sophia Mucha especially confident, holding the stage in her solo where she dances for the nutcracker she’s been given. We watch her clamber into bed, when an oversized, malevolent mouse sparks off a nightmare sequence in which Clara morphs into ENB principal Laurretta Summerscales, who has to cope with not one, but two love interests.  In a psychologically tangled sequence drawing on Clara’s teen crush on Drosselmeyer’s military nephew, she is partnered by both the Nutcracker (masked) and the nephew, who keep swapping in and out the scene. Around them cavort the mice – scarily costumed with bony skulls – who catapult a lump of cheese from a giant mousetrap, a witty touch. But the mouse king is not defeated. Eagling tries to bridge the two acts by having him tag along beneath the hot air balloon that whisks Clara and the nephew away from the Land of Snow, continuing the battle into Act II. This falls flat, though, the rotten rodent quickly scurrying behind the curtain of the puppet theatre, never to be sighted again. Clara transforms into the Sugar Plum Fairy, the nephew into her prince. Confused? You will be.

It was rescued by some fine dancing, particularly Summerscales’ perky Clara, clean and graceful in the Act II pas de deux, sparkling in her Swarowski-studded tutu, but lacking connection with Emilio Pavan’s expressionless nephew. The character dances were attractively performed: Adela Ramírez, Crystal Costa and Fernando Bufalá sultry in scarlet in the Spanish Dance; a sinuous and sinister Arabian Dance, complete with smouldering bass clarinet; neat fouettés from Rina Kanehara at the climax of the Chinese Dance; and athletic tours en l’air from Ken Saruhashi in the popular Russian Dance. Junor Souza impressed as a sturdy nutcracker. Other versions allow Drosselmeyer a more prominent role; here, James Streeter just looked mildly annoyed by the party guests before doing a turn as Master of Ceremonies for the character dances.

Ensemble work was crisp, the Waltz of the Snowflakes showing off the company’s corps de ballet exquisitely, although the marmoreal slowing down of Tchaikovsky’s music in the coda distorts the score too much to fit the choreography and vocally stretches the students from Tring Park School beyond comfort.

Elsewhere, the English National Ballet Philharmonic was on terrific form under Gavin Sutherland, with characterful woodwinds and punchy brass, the fiendish cornet solo in the Spanish Dance admirably precise. Alas, not quite enough to save a Nutcracker considerably lacking in magic.