Birmingham Royal Ballet at Birmingham Hippodrome *****
First aired as a gift to Birmingham nearly a third of a century ago, Sir Peter Wright’s production for the then fledgling Birmingham Royal Ballet of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker has become a Christmas classic, and this year has grown new wings after a lockdown-enforced rethink.
John McFarlane’s always brilliant set designs have had a spectacular revamp, costumes have had a wash and brush-up, and the whole show has a freshness which almost makes it a premiere again, 32 years on.
Much of this is due to the increased emphasis on the magician Drosselmeyer, creator of the Nutcracker doll, instigator of all the mayhem which ensues when the doll confronts the rats lurking behind the chimney, and now, in this reworking, a major presence in Act Two, acting as master of ceremonies as Clara enjoys performances from a stamp-album of worldwide delights.
Rory Mackay, sweepingly becloaked, was Drosselmeyer, imperious and magisterial, with Reina Fuchigami the charming, enchanted Clara. Equally enchanting was Samara Downs as Clara’s one-time ballerina mother, gracious and warm-hearted, and Lynsey Sutherland and Michael O’Hare almost stole the show as Clara’s grandparents to Tchaikovsky’s pinch of Schumann’s music.
All the children party-guests performed with commitment and aplomb (there were some very little dots among the company), and the farewells moved smoothly (oh, that all guests took their leave so promptly).
The divertissements in the Land of Snow (it used to be called the Kingdom of Sweets) flowed narratively under Drosselmeyer’s direction. Particularly engaging was the almost still-life Danse Arabe from Yaoqian Shang and Gabriel Anderson, and the Grand pas de deux from Celine Gittens and Brandon Lawrence more than surpassed expectations.
The legendary BRB Sinfonia sounded somewhat thin and depleted in this particular number, but played with alert colour throughout the evening, conductor Martin Georgiev selecting perfect dancer-friendly tempi. We did, however, miss the vocalisations of Ex Cathedra as we moved into the Land of Snow.
Much has been spouted about the racial caricaturing of the divertissements, but happily here there was no obtrusive wokification. The Chinese Dance was an exuberant delight, and still obviously Chinese.
Less delightful was the audience response as Act II progressed. I am all for enthusiastic appreciation, but since when did all the courtesies of classical ballet descend to the Blackpool whoops of Strictly Come Dancing?