The Nutcracker before Guy Fawkes Night? It could seem as sad as the people who decorate their homes for Christmas well before the first of December, but with Drew McOnie's Nutcracker it is an entirely different matter because the choreographer and director have created, in the tiniest of spaces imaginable, a hugely enjoyable production that is probably also the coolest dance show you'll see in the run up to the festive season.
Performed in the Tuff Nutt Jazz Club, a new, low-ceilinged basement venue in the Royal Festival Hall that was formerly the popular Canteen restaurant, the audience is arranged around the central performing area on three sides, whilst at the back sits the band. The atmosphere is smoky, like jazz clubs of days gone by, but without any actual smoke, and the seven dancers flash by, right in front of the audience, running, jumping, turning, and lifting each other, and making one marvel that they do not collide into those seated at tables around the performance space. It's a thrill to have the cast so close that you could touch them, and they all performed with style and sophistication to Tchaikovsky's great ballet score, which has been given a witty jazz makeover by Cassie Kinoshi. The band, dressed in striped pyjamas, consist of keyboards, saxophone, flute, double bass and drums, but Kinoshi steers clear of making the famous tunes too syncopated – part of the fun of her score is the anticipation of popular numbers, such as the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, emerging through jazz riffs.
McOnie, who once memorably appeared in Matthew Bourne's version of The Nutcracker, has spruced up the story for his own staging, making it domestic in scale and bringing it up to date in a way that will not only appeal to kids, but that can also be enjoyed by adults, who will appreciate the grown-up themes he introduces. Instead of centring around a little girl, Clara, the story now concerns young Clive (Mark Samaras), a wide-eyed daydreamer who would much rather be playing with the Sugar Plum Fairy doll from the top of the Christmas tree than the Action Man his single-parent father (Tim Hodges) has given him. There's a half-decorated tinsel tree in the corner, a sofa, a tiny TV, and a half-empty box of Quality Street to keep Clive company whilst he waits for his dad to come home from work on Christmas Eve. Dad, however, clutching a handful of unpaid bills, is stressed, and following an argument with his son, leaves Clive asleep on the sofa. Clive dreams and, of course, magic quickly ensues, with both the Sugar Plum (Patricia Zhou) and Action Man (Amonik Melaco) dolls coming alive. They are enemies at first, but then become friends and lead Clive to “Dreamland” via a snow scene in which they, and the other dancers (Hodges, Chanelle Anthony, Christie Crosson, and Rachel Muldoon) have a snow fight.
On arrival in Dreamland, and with the dancers dressed in sequinned trousers and tops (the men are sometimes bare-chested), Clive and Action Man bond, almost a budding first romance, and dance together with increasingly joyful leaps. Action Man is then offered an array of cocktails in Rainbow colours and, with a sip from each glass, dancers emerge to perform for him and Clive, and entice them to join in. Red, performed to the music of the Chinese Dance, becomes a sexy tango for a couple in scarlet leather jackets; the Spanish dance is a female Orange solo which includes sensual, slinky moves and a beautifully wafting skirt; Yellow is the Russian dance, with a woman making skippy jumps, and inebriated, madcap chaîne turns; Green is a male solo to the Arabian dance, all undulating limbs and back, and Blue is a trio for a man and two women to the Mirlitons dance. Finally, the Purple cocktail inevitably means a solo for Sugar Plum herself, in which she performs deep backbends and leg extensions, and sways side to side.
Eventually, in a moment that touchingly depicts unspoken yearning, and performed to the Waltz of the Flowers, the Colours encourage Clive and Action Man to don ballet skirts and dance, and then Sugar Plum arrives in a pair of silver combat trousers to join them. The scene concludes with the cast throwing multi-coloured confetti into the air as they circle the stage. Suddenly, it's time for Clive to return to the real world, and Action Man swirls him in his arms back to the sofa and covers him up in a blanket. As the dancers vanish, Dad reappears to wake Clive up and give him his present on Christmas morning – I won't reveal the ending, but it's a touching scene that shows a parent coming to terms and accepting the true nature of their child.
Although there are lovely costumes by Ryan Dawson Laight, there are no magic Christmas trees in this Nutcracker, or any other elaborate special effects. McOnie, however, with the help of his designer Soutra Gilmour, has created a staging that is wry, beautifully observed, and has a captivating charm and humanity of its own. He doesn't have the stage space to allow the choreography really to take off, but I enjoyed it all immensely, and was impressed by the dancers – especially Samaras, Zhou and Melaco – who not only made an amazing number of quick costume changes but captured just the right amount of honesty and tongue-in-cheek, camp irreverence to make it an evening of total fun.
Jonathan Gray was editor of Dancing Times from 2008 to 2022.
He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. He was on the Curatorial Staff of the Theatre Museum, London, from 1989 to 2005, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet's productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times and The Guardian, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.