Christmas time and it must be time for The Nutcracker, although Tchaikovsky’s ballet based on an adaptation of ETA Hoffmann's story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by Alexandra Dumas père called The Tale of the Nutcracker, only enjoyed this success from the late 1960’s onwards. The music is now so well-known that it’s not surprising Nancy Holson, no slouch when it comes to taking on big imaginative projects (last year she and her daughter staged JFest, a Festival of new Jewish Theatre, in New York ) wanted to put words to it and turn it into a musical. The London production, directed by Ollie Fielding, follows a tryout production in upstate New York.
Clara, a young girl, creeps downstairs on Christmas Eve to play with her favourite present – a Nutcracker. But a mysterious magician, Drosselmeyer, is waiting to sweep her off on a magical adventure. Tchaikovsky’s libretto was written by Marius Petipa, who helped choreograph the first production, and so he filleted the storyline to produce the ballet sequences we know and love.
Holson has given the story a present-day wrap. Young Marie’s Uncle Drosselmier (Marie Coyne and Kris Webb) read the ‘The Tale of the Hard Nut’ in the book her brings her for Christmas, so that the youngster can let her imagination take flight and enter the world of the book – actually transforming from Doctor’s daughter to the Princess Pirlipat (at least the adult Princess, for in Act One she is still a baby), daughter of Queen Wanda and King Wilhelm (aka her parents, for Ann Marcuson, who plays her mother, harassed doctor Stahlbaum, plays the Queen and Henry Wryley-Birch, who plays her father Mr S, plays the King).
All of the above clearly have a lot of fun with their characters, especially when they enter the world of the storybook. Designer Eleanor Field gives them attractively flamboyant fairy-tale costumes, which contrast nicely with the more prosaic onesies and track suits of the real world and she clearly relishes the fun of designing the set of a pop up storybook.
One of the characters having the most fun is the villainous Mouseyrinks, Queen (not King please note!) of the mice and rats that overrun the palace as in the ballet’s story. Jamie Birkett plays her with evil panache and it’s a possibly coincidental bonus that she resembles Marcuson’s Queen, almost as if she is her evil sister. In a sort of mash up with The Sleeping Beauty, when Mouseyrinks’ children are decimated at the monarch’s orders, she manages to slip past the nursemaids and guards watching over the princess to curse her – and so the quest for a way to reverse the curse, which will require bravery and lead to adventure and perhaps true love, begins … and oh yes, of course there is a Sugar Plum Fairy to play her part in righting wrongs and trying to ensure that happy ending!
Holson has a ball writing lyrics for Tchaikovsky’s glorious music and if you know the ballet, you’ll have fun identifying the tunes of the dances she transforms into songs to tell the story and move the action along. The whole cast sings with relish and dances attractively (thanks to musical director Robert Hazle and choreographer Alejandro Postigo). Occasionally it’s hard to hear the lyrics, but mostly they are greeted with appreciative audience laughter as appropriate. And it’s a brave choice to opt for not amplifying the cast, which is helped by the pre-recorded music kept at a fairly low level, though perhaps hindered by the theatre’s acoustic.
Leigh Rhianon Coggins makes a lovely warm Sugar Plum Fairy, and her voice and those of Marcuson, Coyne and Birkett stand out. The whole company works nicely together in a range of roles from palace servants to boisterously evil mice. There’s a lovely little cameo wise owl, courtesy of performer Helen Reuben and puppet maker Emily Bestow. And a great running joke where king Wilhelm blows his own trumpet to herald royal proclamations – until the Queen decides it’s her turn (yes, both performers can blow their horns!)
It is uneven and not every tune lends itself to lyrics, but it is all good fun and provides a bit of seasonal magic. Holson’s takeaway message to the audience is ‘don’t neglect your imagination’ and she and her company certainly do their best to help it to take flight.
By Judi Herman
Nutcracker! The Musical runs until Sunday 3 January, 7.30pm & 4pm, £12 at Pleasance Theatre, Carpenters Mews, North Rd, N7 9EF; 020 7609 1800. www.pleasance.co.uk