It’s almost Christmas. Outside, the City is crowded, noisy, struggling and tense. It’s unseasonably warm. Inside the English National Ballet’s The Nutcracker (Wayne Eagling), revellers ice-skate on wide streets as snow falls and everything is perfect for Christmas Eve.

Shiori Kase (Clara) and James Forbat (Nutcracker) © Laurent Liotardo
Shiori Kase (Clara) and James Forbat (Nutcracker)
© Laurent Liotardo

Clara, the youngest daughter, is getting ready, tormented by her brother Freddie, who drops a dead mouse onto the carpet to cause a fuss. Guests arrive and in a picture-perfect living room, social graces, excited children, flirting, mild embarrassments and entertainments are orchestrated by the mysterious Drosselmeyer, an old family friend. He gives Clara a nutcracker, in the form of a toy soldier, but Freddie quickly breaks it. Drosselmeyer “magically” fixes it, which makes Clara love it even more, echoing the crush she is developing for his handsome nephew, also a soldier. All too soon, it is time for bed.

Memories of the evening weave through Clara’s sleep. The Nutcracker and toy soldiers battle with the evil Mouse King and his army; Drosselmeyer brings puppets, flowers and sweets alive and the Nutcracker blurs with the handsome nephew, finally defeating the mice. Clara dances through her dream until suddenly waking as Drosselmeyer and the nephew leave.

There is much to like about this Nutcracker. Act I is a Victorian Christmas card come to life. Peter Farmer’s designs and David Richardson’s lighting perfectly frame the large cast, exquistely costumed and performing with elegance and grace. It is cosy, creating warmth and good cheer. I particularly liked seeing Clara performed by a girl until the dream begins, and Cheryl Heung was excellent in the role: believable and charming without being too sentimental. All the children (from ENB and Tring Park schools) were impressive, adorable in the party and precise as mice and soldiers.

Shiori Kase (as the adult Clara in her dream) is every bit as beautiful on stage as in the production poster. She spins fast and poses precisely: the quintessential “musical box ballerina”. Cesar Corrales (in his debut as Drosselmeyer's Nephew) is powerful, confident enough to own the stage and his virtuosity is often exciting. Fabian Reimair creates an amiable Drosselmeyer, and partners particularly well. There were many examples of excellent individual and ensemble dance: I particularly enjoyed Adela Ramirez and Crystal Costa’s sinuous Spanish Dance and Yonah Acosta’s explosive Russian. The Flowers and Snowflakes were wonderful, creating magic.

Shiori Kase (Clara) and Cesar Corrales (The Nephew) © Laurent Liotardo
Shiori Kase (Clara) and Cesar Corrales (The Nephew)
© Laurent Liotardo

The staging has many imaginative touches. The skaters and balloon ride are well done and there are slick changes of scene that carry the story. I liked the cadaverous mouse masks and all the costumes.

Sadly, I kept being brought out of this world by flaws in the production. Wayne Eagling struggled to finish this work. It still shows. Lots of good ideas are started, but are never developed. For example, our first meeting with the Mouse King, as Clara falls asleep, is promising. James Streeter creates menace with unexpected but still mouse-like movement. Soon, he is struggling to put any life into over-repeated capering and arm-waving. There is a disconnect between the two acts. The world painstakingly created in Act I shrinks to become a sketchy puppet theatre, with Drosselmeyer waving open the curtains for one disconnected dance after another.

There are too many stereotypes. The Arabian Dance (with a whip-wielding slave master, slaves and dancing girls) is uncomfortable. The party has a kilted Scottish drunk, a senile old lady and deaf man, dashing soldiers chasing flirty young women with every single girl perfectly behaved and every boy a lout You don’t expect complex characters in the Nutcracker, but these are particularly shallow. There is much left unexplored: for example, why is Drosselmeyer manipulating everyone?

Madison Keesler and Snowflakes © Laurent Liotardo
Madison Keesler and Snowflakes
© Laurent Liotardo

First night tension and some occasional rough edges added to these structural flaws. The orchestra (under Gavin Sutherland) brought Tchaikovsky’s tremendous score to life, but the Act I tempi seemed a little too fast. With too little contrast in intensity, the music and performance could not “breathe” and felt a little rushed. There were not even pauses to allow applause. This was much better in Act II, but here some of the dance, especially partnering, needed more finesse. The effort became visible too often and some lifts and supported turns were not smooth. Chemistry was often lacking in duets, despite strong virtuoso individual performances.

I enjoyed the evening, and it was good to see small children, and a few adults, wide-eyed with wonder. I would happily see this again, but I was slightly disappointed. This Nutcracker could be so much more.