November 21, 2021
It’s Christmas, it’s Birmingham, and The Nutcracker is back live at the Hippodrome. Except that it’s not quite the one we have all been used to the past 30 years. John MacFarlane’s magical set is having a much-needed extensive rebuild, so this year Birmingham Royal Ballet is performing the company’s Royal Albert Hall production.
But worry not! It’s a fine version that opens with a prologue in which we see Drosselmeyer setting off from his sort of punk Victorian looking workshop for the Stahlbaum’s Christmas gathering. It works well, especially with Simon Callow’s voiceover (as Drosselmeyer) explaining what is going on.
We know it’s Nuremberg from the labels on his boxes of gifts, a neat nod to the fact that Tchaikovsky’s ballet was based not on the original very dark Hoffman story but on Alexandre Dumas’ somewhat lighter and happier reworking, titled The Nutcracker of Nuremberg. Another nod comes later in that Clara journeys not to the Land of Sweets, but the Land of Dolls as in Dumas’ telling.
It is impossible not to make comparisons. The Stahlbaum residence is rather grander than Birmingham audiences will be used to, the festivities all taking place in a rather elegant ballroom with large windows and doors upstage that provide extra entrances and exits. Not only does the much brighter setting give new life and vitality to the scene, the extra space allows the dance to be seen much better. While the choreography and magic tricks may be the same it feels incredibly fresh and almost like a different, new, ballet; one about which there is much to like.
Jonathan Payn’s Drosselmeyer is one of the best; elegant with just the right hint of mystery about him. The presents he gives to the children all link neatly to Act 2: the girls all get dolls reflecting the divertissements to come, while Fritz gets a giant King Rat stuffed toy. Clara not only gets a Nutcracker doll, but a sparkly new pair of pointe shoes.
Beatrice Parma was perfect as the Stahlbaum’s daughter. Always expressive, she dances with beautiful grace and lightness. She has a joyous spring in her steps, which no doubt helped Gus Payne, her Act I dancing partner, make her look featherlight in lifts in which she almost seemed to float in mid-air.
The transformation scene may be different but it is still stunning as the Christmas tree visuals by 59 Productions fill the stage and the walls of the theatre, and the giant decorations drop in from above. If anything, they actually work better and feel more immersive in the more confined Hippodrome auditorium (especially if you are in the front stalls) than at the Royal Albert Hall, where they do get a little lost in the vastness of the venue. I did miss that spine-tingling moment when Drosselmeyer slowly turns in that fireside chair, though.
As the Prince, César Morales was all we have come to expect from the master craftsman. His pas de deux with Parma after the battle showed him at his best. He may not be flashy, but he’s certainly elegant, full of control and beautifully light. He’s the most gracious of partners too.
Clara flies to the Land of Dolls born aloft by four of the male Snowflakes. It works a treat, and while this might put me in a minority, it’s one of several changes I would keep. The familiar giant bird has never convinced me (maybe it will after the refurb) and this somehow feels much more real, even though we know it’s all a dream.
The company sailed through the various dances, infusing all with colour and energy. They really are on fine form right now. The revised Chinese dance, full of multiple pirouettes, is a fine replacement for the previous problem-ridden affair.
Along with Morales, Miki Mizutani sparkled in the Grand pas de deux, recovering neatly and swiftly from a little mishap at the start of the fouettés. If one is being picky, there is a narrative hitch at this point in that Clara does not transform in the Sugar Plum Fairy (she actually sits and watches most of the duet), but she does transform back.
It was a fine afternoon as everyone seemed to enjoy the return of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s traditional festive fare (even if the presentation this year is a little different). The pre-show noisy, expectant chatter from the sea of heads at the near sold-out Hippodrome was a joy. How great it is to hear a theatre buzz like that. There were plenty of oohs and aarhs as they lapped everything up. Quite right too.
We may still be a month away from Christmas 2021, but tickets are already on sale for the 2022 performances of The Nutcracker at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Visit birminghamhippodrome.com for details.