Southbank Centre, London
November 3, 2023
It’s only early November, but Nutcracker season is already upon us. First out of the blocks this year is something just a little bit different, however. Take a stroll to the back of the Royal Festival Hall and you’ll find the pop-up Tuff Nutt Jazz Club. The space, formerly occupied by a restaurant and music venue, is home to director-choreographer Drew McOnie’s new production of the seasonal staple, which comes complete with the familiar Tchaikovsky score reimagined for a four-piece jazz band by Mercury-nominated composer-musician Cassie Kinoshi and Rio Kai.
It is great fun; a show that will delight dance lovers and music lovers, young and old alike. Told over around seventy minutes, the time flies. The dance, a jazz-ballet-contemporary fusion, comes pretty much non-stop. The whole show flows incredibly well with the story as clear can be. And while McOnie’s interpretation may have a serious message about accepting people for who they are, and having confidence in who you are, there is plenty of childlike wonder, free-spirited mischief, and more than a few smiles along the way.
McOnie respects tradition while still being new, fresh and vibrant. This Nutcracker may be twists at every turn, but pretty much all the usual story is still there. At its heart is still a journey of discovery for the central figure, who just happens to be called Clive rather than Clara. That journey may not be about love but is still essentially about growing up, and discovering and having confidence in his own identity.
The way Kinoshi and Kai have rewritten the score and blended the classical original with jazz is inspired. It’s all very recognisable and, while snatches of a few tunes are occasionally heard in unfamiliar places, most is where you would expect it to be. The band, all dressed in pyjamas, are terrific.
McOnie shifts the family home from the usual big house to a small bedsit where a single father is trying to raise his son. It’s about as intimate as you can get. With just four rows of seats arranged cabaret-style, no-one is more than a few feet from the action. Those in the front row don’t just feel like they’re in the bedsit, they are.
There’s an immediate sense Clive feels lonely and misunderstood. Left on his own after his father has been called away, Mark Samaras, who convinces as the youngster throughout, extracts every ounce of feeling in a fine solo around the sofa. As he dances with the purple Sugar Plum Fairy from the top of the tree in a beautifully judged imaginary play scene, she magically comes to life in the form of Patricia Zhou. Samaras’ face lights up and is a real picture of joy as their duet sweeps back and forth, making super use of the restricted space. Remarkably, given the incredibly low ceiling, they even manage to squeeze in some lifts, Zhou’s feet grazing the lights.
But Clive’s Christmas present from his father (Tim Hodges) turns out to be the most macho possible. An Action Man. In combat gear. It may be swiftly put away as soon as his dad’s back is turned but then, magic. A dream. A transformation scene, and the Action Man come to life as the powerful, muscular, Amonik Melaco.
You keep thinking that McOnie surely cannot possibly squeeze every element of the traditional Nutcracker in, albeit in his own way. But he does. The smoky, dramatic battle, in which the Sugar Plum Fairy gets chased, is incredibly effective given the small cast, McOnie making great use of every inch of space, including the aisles. In the Land of Snow four dancers creatively conjure up a snowstorm. Ryan Dawson Laight’s white, ski-wear-based costumes here are some of the best of the evening.
Dreamland has all the usual divertissements, although all based on colours rather than national dances. One in red comes with a ballroom, sort of Strictly flavour, one is enigmatic. Pick of the bunch is Chanelle Anthony’s solo in orange to the usual ‘Spanish’ music, full of gorgeous lines and long extensions, though. As in all the best takes on The Nutcracker, McOnie keeps Clive on stage, occasionally joining in with the action, thus keeping the story moving.
The show and its cast just keep giving. Zhou reappears as the Sugar Plum Fairy for a graceful solo full of allure. She’s a real vision in the most gorgeous, slinky, purple dress.
An underlying theme in McOnie’s Nutcracker is that, despite pressures from some quarters to be macho and tough, there is no definitive way of being a man; or, come to that, a woman. We all live on a masculine-feminine continuum and we are all different. All the time, it’s not just Clive who has been coming to terms with his feminine side, but the Action Man too. In pink and purple dresses, they come together for a duet (effectively the Grand pas de deux) that just yells ‘freedom’ as loud as is possible.
Returning to the real world, the father’s speech to his son bout love and acceptance is as heartfelt and sincere as it gets but it’s a shame it isn’t conveyed in dance. But that’s a small point. This Nutcracker is a fabulous production. The whole cast is outstanding. The six of them get through a lot of dance. It must be absolutely exhausting. I’ll be amazed if there’s another Nutcracker out there this Christmas that’s quite as innovative, entertaining and vibrant. And in a really cool venue too.
Nutcracker at the Tuff Nutt Jazz Club by the McOnie Company is at the Southbank Centre, London until January 6, 2024.
Following performances Thursday to Sunday, audiences are invited to continue their evening at the club’s Nutcracker Nights, with live sessions from leading musicians and the dance floor ready.