Midnight chimes. A sinister bass clarinet throbs, a harp glints and the strings begin their ascent. Gary Avis’ debonair Drosselmeyer flings glitter to the heavens and the Christmas tree magically grows. This can only mean one thing: The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker is back. Christmas has truly arrived and Tchaikovsky’s ballet continues to delight young and old with its festive magic, light dusting of snow and its chocolate-box score.

Francesca Hayward (Clara) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Francesca Hayward (Clara)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton
E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is a good deal darker than Petipa’s sweet-toothed synopsis for Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Peter Wright draws on Hoffmann to introduce some back-story that acts as a framing device to his 1984 production. The mysterious Drosselmeyer mourns his nephew (Hans Peter) who fell victim to the Mouse Queen’s curse, turning him into a nutcracker. Clara breaks the spell when she defeats the Mouse King in battle. Where many versions of the ballet end with Clara awakening from a dream, here it is Drosselmeyer who has been dozing, waking to discover his nephew has been restored to him.

Drosselmeyer plays a much more significant role in Wright’s version, escorting Clara and the Nutcracker to the Kingdom of Sweets (cleverly modelled on the cake he presents at the Stahlbaums’ Christmas party) and acting as Master of Ceremonies. Gary Avis plays him with avuncular, cape-twirling grace – everyone’s favourite uncle.

Artists of The Royal Ballet (Waltz of the Snowflakes) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Artists of The Royal Ballet (Waltz of the Snowflakes)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Francesca Hayward’s Clara was utterly charming, full of wide-eyed wonderment at Drosselmeyer’s party tricks. Where Clara is often reduced to the role of spectator or guest of honour in The Kingdom of Sweets, Wright has her joining in many of the dances in the Divertissement. Hayward relished this, her bourrés while shaded by two parasols in the Chinese Dance nearly light enough to send her airborne. She was partnered by Alexander Campbell’s beaming Nutcracker/Hans Peter, especially strong in his Act II mime where he narrates the dramatic events of Act I to the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The children in the Act I party – rehearsed within an inch of their young lives – were perfect, the girls attending to their dolls, the boys launching their ambush with military precision. A neatly choreographed battle scene – the stretcher-bearing mice always make me chuckle – saw Nicol Edmonds’ Mouse King put up a valiant struggle before Clara dispatches him with her slipper. The excellent young Artists of The Royal Ballet featured in the terrific Waltz of the Snowflakes – a crisply executed flurry. And how delightful to hear the London Oratory Junior Choir here; a female chorus is just not the same.

Steven McRae (The Prince) and Iana Salenko (The Sugar Plum Fairy) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Steven McRae (The Prince) and Iana Salenko (The Sugar Plum Fairy)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Iana Salenko (Guest Artist, principal at the Stattsballett Berlin) in her role debut here as the Sugar Plum Fairy, lacked a little warmth in the grand pas de deux, although her diamond-sharp fouettés impressed, while Steven McRae danced with bravura, an effective foil as her Prince. The Act II character dances give opportunities for some of The Royal Ballet’s soloists to shine. This evening, Olivia Cowley’s slinky, sinuous Arabian Dance was a delight, as was Yasmine Naghdi’s sparkling Rose Fairy in the Waltz of the Flowers.

Yasmine Naghdi (Rose fairy) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Yasmine Naghdi (Rose fairy)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Boris Gruzin, by far the best conductor of Tchaikovsky currently on the Royal Ballet’s roster, brought the score to vivid life. A couple of woodwind slips apart, the orchestra was on fine form, especially the trumpets contributing brio to the Spanish Dance.

A terrific introduction to ballet, this meticulous Nutcracker revival should also delight the most jaded balletomane and deliver seasonal cheer to the most Scrooge-like curmudgeon. Bring on the snow!