A Winter Wonderland: Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker

Birmingham Hippodrome
27 November 2015 (evening)

David Mead

It may have been Black Friday, that ghastly and unnecessary American import, but there was nothing black at the Birmingham Hippodrome in the evening. With Christmas trees, tinsel and fairy lights decorating the foyers, it was the launch of the festive season for ballet-goers: Nutcracker time!

It’s been said many times, but this Peter Wright’s Birmingham version of the ballet is a cracking one. It’s not a kids’ ballet. Yes it has kids in it, and yes there is humour and magic and fun, but this story of a teenager and her dreams has plenty in it for the grown-ups too as it blurs the boundaries between childhood and adulthood, between dreams and real-life. You can read all sorts of things into it if you want to. Are the characters in Act II versions of real people in Act I, for example? Or you can just sit back and wallow in the festive fun.

And what fun it was. Birmingham’s Nutcracker always delights, but this evening seemed to have a special buzz. It’s hard to put a finger on why, but there was definitely electricity in the air. Everyone was on top form.

Karla Doorbar was an excellent Clara. She may be still a teenager, innocent and still in awe of the giant Christmas tree, but from the glances, one also who has feelings for her (unnamed) dancing partner.

Birmingham Royal Ballet in The Nutcracker
Photo Bill Cooper

Joseph Caley is a fine and handsome Nutcracker-cum-Prince. Although the grand pas de deux has all the fireworks, I always find his Act I dance with Clara rather more appealing. It’s certainly emotional and full of feeling.

For the final pas de deux, Clara finds herself transformed into the Sugar Plum Fairy of course, Doorbar turning into Momoko Hirata, who launched into the dance with ferocious attack and a smile that must have reached way beyond the back of the circle. It was not only thrilling, but pinpoint accurate save one slip when things got slight too fast, but given everything else I can forgive that.

Jonathan Payn is a first-rate Drosselmeyer. Everyone loves the transformation scene, and twenty-five years after it was first seen, it is surely still the finest in any Nutcracker anywhere, but the real spine-tingly moment comes just before, when in the dark sitting room, one of the armchairs slowly turns as if by magic to reveal a now slightly scary magician who is about to take Clara on her fantastic journey.

The Nutcracker can’t wow on the basis of the principals alone, though, and the rest of the cast glowed gloriously too. The Act I party is full of wonderful characters. Wolfgang Stollwitzer is truly handsome as Clara’s father, with Ana Albutashvili the most elegant of mothers; and what a fabulous red gown that is. Rory Mackay did a fine job as the elderly grandfather. On this evening, even the children, especially the boys, seemed to have something special about them. Their mischievousness seemed so natural. Young Max Blackwell is quite an actor. His Fritz is a real William Brown of a character, definitely the leader of this particular band of ‘Outlaws.’

Yasuo Atsuji is a grand King Rat, something of a Jack Sparrow sort of figure, a gentleman rat in his own way, leader of his own band of incompetents and someone who you know is going to get everything wrong, however hard he tries. Vincent Redmon’s battle scene with its guns, canon, swords and flags is superb.

In the big ensemble numbers, Samara Downs sparkled as the gracious Snow Fairy, while Céline Gittens glowed gloriously as the Rose Fairy, while The Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Koen Kessels gave a warming account of the Tchaikovsky score.