Originally written for Exeunt.
As Chris Thorpe acknowledged while discussing Northern Stage’s Christmas show, there is something about this time of year that feels intimately tied up with stories. Whether it is fairytales, stories of Santa or the tale of the nativity itself, the festive season is drenched in narrative. The story chosen for this year’s family show at the Nuffield Theatre is one so familiar that it has become part of the cultural fabric of Christmas, but the creative team have approached it from a slightly less familiar angle. A play with songs rather than the well known ballet, this is a Nutcracker with no Sugarplum Fairy and rather more back story, taking its lead from ETA Hoffman’s original tale.
Unfortunately, the story is the very element that lets this production down. Here, young Clara’s journey into the Land of Sweets and the central battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King occupy only a fraction of the stage time, the greater portion of which is taken up by exposition and scene-setting. The darker elements of Hoffman’s short story are welcome antidotes to what can be a queasily saccharine tale, but their incorporation into Hattie Naylor and Paul Dodgson’s script is decidedly laboured. We find out plenty about the curse of the Nutcracker and how he came to be the enemy of the wicked Mouse King, but all in a series of scenes that play out like an extended prologue. The first act ends beautifully, with an image to send chills down the spines of the children in the audience, but there is a niggling feeling that it is only just getting to the heart of the narrative.
This adaptation is also one that suffers from something of an identity crisis. The conventions of audience interaction are called upon early on, as the performers enter through the auditorium and talk to the kids on the way, but from this point onwards the piece is torn between fourth wall storytelling and pantomime style involvement. The narrator figure is an odd fit with the rest of the show, while the recruiting of the audience to hurl foam balls during the battle scene – while undeniably great fun – jars awkwardly with the action that has preceded it. Neither simple storytelling exercise nor riotous panto romp, The Nutcracker wants to be both at once, but struggles to knit the two genres successfully together.
There is, however, a fair sprinkling of magic in Blanche McIntyre’s production. The opening scene is a delight, pulling out all the tricks of the stage to establish a mood of enchantment and wide-eyed wonder, while raising several gasps from its young audience in the process. These moments of dazzled awe are the most rewarding, reminding adults as well as children just how magical theatre can be. Rhys Jarman’s design does a lot of the legwork, offering a series of charming transformations, while the cast bring an infectious energy to the range of roles they are asked to adopt throughout the twisting narrative.
The production is at its best when playful, whether that is the deliciously hammed up villainy of the Mouse King or the cheekily self-aware conclusion. At the end, the characters leave us deliberately in doubt about the nature of what we have seen, embracing the more uncertain and dreamlike qualities of Hoffman’s tale. Implicit in this ending is a question about stories themselves – why we tell them, what they mean to us, and when they become real. It is only a shame that it takes this long for the storytelling to come into its own.