Although the ever-delightful dancers of English National Ballet – and their excellent musicians – do their best to elevate and revive it, I can’t help feeling that this production of Nutcracker seems tired. Even when first created on ENB – in 2010 – in the twilight days of Wayne Eagling’s directorship – he revived and refurbished the production originally made for Dutch National Ballet, with Toer van Schayk – I felt it to be a rather mixed bag of sweets, not helped by the frequent switching of roles (poor Clara even changes partners during a pas de deux to dance with a Nutcracker “doll” with an injured arm).

Rina Kanehara and Jeffrey Cirio in ENB's <i>Nutcracker</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Rina Kanehara and Jeffrey Cirio in ENB's Nutcracker
© Laurent Liotardo

There is evidence in one of the fly-on-the wall  ‘Agony and Ecstasy’  documentary films made about ENB for BBC4, in 2010, that some aspects of the choreography (I recall, particularly, a six-minute “hole” in the first act) were finished at the eleventh hour:  that was eight years’ ago and, today, it still seems that way.  

Nonetheless, this Nutcracker has elements with the capacity to enthral, notably in the opening and closing scenes in the late Peter Farmer’s wonderful designs for the façade of a palatial Victorian house overlooking a frozen pond with skaters having fun; and – at the end – a magical hot air balloon drifting away in the night sky.  The affluent household’s Christmas Party is also well contrived, as is the Gulliveresque transformation of child Clara (a delightful performance by Sophie Carter, with Nicholas Pereira Da Silva as her mischievious brother, Freddie) to the effervescent adolescent ingénue.  

In Eagling’s production (unlike that of Sir Peter Wright down the road at The Royal Opera House) Clara is also the Sugar Plum Fairy and Drosselmeyer’’s nephew is her consort; and this performance was embellished by the elegant partnership of Rina Kanehara and Jeffrey Cirio in these roles. Their grand pas de deux was delightful, each performing with aristocratic excellence and empathetic mutuality that mastered the virtuoso requirements of Eagling’s difficult choreography (not least in the Sugar Plum’s fiendishly complicated variation, which comes after hardly a minute’s rest). This was supreme dancing that was glamorous without being unduly showy.   

The corps de ballet also deserve fulsome praise for their performance, which was tightly co-ordinated and provided lavish spectacle in the rich choreographic patterns for the snowflakes and the flowers. There seemed palpable joy in their performance, as evidenced in the vivacity of the lead snowflakes (Tiffany Hedman and Alison McWhinney) that one felt transmitted to enhance the audience’s enthusiasm. A word, too, in praise of Fernando Carratala Coloma and James Streeter for the thankless task of performing in masks, throughout, respectively as the aforementioned Nutcracker and the Mouse King. I once had the opportunity of trying on the Nutcracker mask and I cannot imagine how hot it must be to dance in it!

The bareness of the stage during what is traditionally the Kingdom of the Sweets (but here transformed into the stage of the puppet theatre that is part of the Christmas party) contrasts poorly with the spectacle of other productions during the second act (including the more recent of the nine previous iterations by ENB). As Drosselmeyer, Fabian Reimair does his best – including through mimed introductions to each national dance – to enliven the proceedings.   But, these dances are – to my mind – a lacklustre reflection on the glorious music that they serve, especially in the uninspiring Arabian dance with its wilting whip. Only Katya Khaniukova’s brief burst of exuberance, accompanied by Victor Prigent and Joshua McSherry-Gray, in the Chinese dance and a superb, rousing vignette by Ken Saruhashi in the Russian dance, together with McWhinney partnering Reimair in the Mirlitons duet, brought colour and excitement.     

The enduring success of the Nutcracker lies in Tchaikovsky’s evergreen score with its luscious melodies and outstanding clarity of description and here was a heart-warming rendition  by the ENB Philharmonic under the direction of Gavin Sutherland. Critics often speak of the tempo of the music as being too fast or funereal but Sutherland varies the tempo always to suit the action: pacy, for example, when Drosselymeyer is rattling through his catalogue of party tricks and then grand and slow during the concluding pas de deux. A performance worth listening to as well as seeing.

Nutcracker is a perennial for ENB (as for so many other companies worldwide) and this is its tenth production in 68 years, an average more-or-less of a new Nutcracker every seven Christmas seasons. This one is now past its sell-by date even though performers in the pit and on the stage are doing their best to keep it fresh.