The Nutcracker at the Royal Albert Hall

Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal Albert Hall, London
December 28, 2022

The Royal Albert Hall has been through a particularly devastating time over the last three years. Denied government funding and obliged to be grateful for a huge loan, its £27 million of reserves have gone and debts stood at £20 million at the beginning of the year.

It was gratifying then, to see ‘London’s Village Hall’ packed to the rafters for the Carols at the Royal Albert Hall season and for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker. That said, the dear old venue is not ideal for dance. For productions restaged in-the-round, it can work very well, but it struggles when shows have a more traditional stage setting. This Nutcracker and some other productions really do need a proscenium arch so that you get the feeling that you are peering through a peep show box.

Karla Doorbar as Clara in The Nutcracker at the Royal Albert Hall
Photo Christie Goodwin

The Royal Albert Hall’s major advantage is that the orchestra, here beautifully conducted by Paul Murphy, are exposed in front of the organ console and above the stage. Although the space for dancing is large, the rest feels very bare, however. The lack of much in the way of a set is only partly compensated for by the light projections, as fabulous as they are. And then there is just the size of the place, which really creates a challenge for the dancers who have to really project over the footlights.

I am rarely comfortable with the spoken voice in ballet; it always jars and it is rarely, if ever, carried through to the logical conclusion, meaning that the convention that it sets is almost always flouted. Simon Callow’s sonorous cod-German, which would not be out of place in a skit of Freud, is superfluous. It is too long in the prologue and then missing in all but one other section. If the dance can speak for itself, which in Birmingham’s Nutcracker it absolutely can and does, then why bother?

There have always been structural problems in The Nutcracker in that the first act is over-long and rather dull and the second barely related. Sir Peter Wright’s adaptation of his Birmingham production does all that is asked of it, however. There’s plenty of colour and lots of fine dancing, especially once it gets past the Stahlbaum family gathering and the transformation scene.

The rats and soldiers do battle
in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker at the Royal Albert Hall
Photo Christie Goodwin

In the opening act, Matthew Titley pulled out all the stops as Fritz, the very young and very annoying brother to Karla Doorbar’s girlie Clara. No disdaining of gender stereotypes here!

Things really start moving with growth of the tree that heralds the entry of the rats, though. It’s not as magical as some, although the projections of fire tree limbs creeping over the auditorium are impressive, if a little distracting as they take the attention away from the stage. The giant baubles, even larger than the vast Royal Albert Hall mirror ball, that are flown in before dangling intimidatingly over the arena are deliciously frightening, though.

Perhaps it’s a question of being ‘lost’ in the vast arena, but the battle between the soldiers and rats, led by Miles Gilliver’s delicious-looking King Rat, lacked energy and just became a rather dull muddle of movement. The pas de deux for the Nutcracker (Mathias Dingman) and Clara that follows is a gem, though.

Carrying the story through the whole evening is a challenge, which Wright gets around by having a dancing Clara for the second act. His having the Nutcracker Prince dance the Grand pas de deux (surely some of the most glorious music Tchaikovsky ever penned?) with the Sugar Plum Fairy does have its contradictions, however.

The second act dances were all nicely executed, the highlight being Yaoqian Shang and Gabriel Anderson in the gently flowing pas de deux that is the Arabian.

As the Sugar Plum Fairy, Momoko Hirata showed all the technical accuracy we have come to expect opposite Dingman’s fine Prince. Yet, for some reason, it just didn’t sparkle. Distance, again, I wonder.

Am I being overly picky? Maybe, because Birmingham’s Nutcracker at the Royal Albert Hall is definitely an entertaining evening; certainly one that seemed to send the audience home very happy.

The Nutcracker by Birmingham Royal Ballet is at The Royal Albert Hall to December 31, 2022.