The Nutcracker review – modernised magic

Tom Morris takes his last bow as the Bristol Old Vic’s artistic director with this glorious new musical version of ETA Hoffmann’s 1816 story of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Do not expect the Sugar Plum Fairy! Morris and his regular Christmas show collaborators, composer and lyricist Gwyneth Herbert and director Lee Lyford, have taken their inspiration from the original, weirdly wonderful text, rather than from the Tchaikovsky/Petipa ballet adaptation. Do expect guts and death; clockwork, sausages and magic.

On present-day Christmas Eve, Claire’s parents and brother are too busy to help her find her lost toy unicorn, Charlie. A mysterious clock-mender arrives bearing gifts, including the Nutcracker. Trying to place it on top of the tree, Claire falls and bangs her head. Her toys come to life and the time-bending clock-mender transports her into another story. This features a king, queen and princess; also, Queen Mouse, who performs “Monstrous Mouse Magic Miracles: Boom!”, and her seven-headed son, who pursues the Nutcracker to the spine-shivering lyric: “Nibble, nibble, gnash, gnash, nibble to death.” Meanwhile, Claire’s family are trying to bring her back to consciousness.

Tom Rogers’s design strikingly links the worlds of the action – Claire’s home; the imaginative space of talking toys; fairytale castle and cottage – via the time-motif of clocks, their cogs and wheels. An impressive nine-strong ensemble of actors and musicians (plus a couple of strings of “dead mice”) fast-change characters and musical styles (all equal, but special mention to Denzel Baidoo’s Nutcracker and Mae Munuo’s Claire).

At times, the narrative line feels shaky. The emotional drive, however, is always clear, strong and simply expressed: “We’re not so far apart, if you see me with your heart.” Schmaltzy? No. In this morally complex production, the couplet is not delivered by a sugar-candy character – there are none – but by the terrifying, curse-hurling Queen Mouse, played by Herbert with wicked glee. Morris’s farewell production joyously celebrates the magic of theatre.