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Review: Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker at Liverpool Empire ****1/2

When a young Matthew Bourne came to choreograph his first major re-interpretation of a ‘classical’ ballet, he turned perhaps unsurprisingly to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s seasonal sweet treat The Nutcracker.

Bourne’s twist was to dial down the glossy, sumptuous nature of its festive opening act set in an over-stuffed family parlour and make it an all-together bleaker, more Dickensian affair – immediately creating a much more vivid divide between the reality and fantasy of Ernst Hoffman’s source story.

That was, perhaps amazingly, 30 years ago.

Bourne brought a revival of the show to the Empire in 2012. And now Nutcracker! is back, freshened up again and on an anniversary tour after a successful Christmas run at Sadler’s Wells.

It’s true that war-torn March feels a long way from a feelgood festive season where Covid was on the wane and theatre audiences started to look forward to a happy new year.

But Nutcracker! also offers an opportunity to turn away from the helpless present of grim, rolling news for a couple of hours and indulge in some lurid, Technicolor escapism.

Above: The orphanage and Top: Marshmallows at the entrance to Sweetieland. Photos by Johan Persson

The story unfolds against designer Anthony Ward’s shades-of-grey orphanage set where the kindness-starved young charges are forced to put on a festive front for a quartet of philanthropist visitors who dole out small gifts while Fritz (Stephen Murray) and Sugar (Monique Jonas), the spoilt offspring of Dr Dross and his awful wife make a greedy grab for what they want.

Clara (danced with great feeling and expressiveness by Katrina Lyndon on the opening night) receives a male doll, lavishing all the affection of a child desperate for love and connection on it – and it’s that doll, also coveted by Jonas’s entitled Sugar, which subsequently turns into the Nutcracker.

Harrison Dowzell is both graceful and athletic as the titular toy-turned-hunk who sweeps Clara off her feet and into the magical landscape of a frozen lake where Bourne’s love of old Hollywood comes to the fore in a delightful skating scene with a huge nod to those amazing 1930s cinematic spectacles.

It’s there that Nutcracker’s fickle head is turned by Jonas’s flirtatious Princess Sugar and you want to shout at a pining Clara – leave him, he’s not worth it!

The production’s graduated tonal shift through grey orphanage to white lake reaches its zenith in the second half when we and Clara are plunged into Sweetieland, a tooth-achingly pink and yellow country that’s somewhere between Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and Oz.

Above: The Frozen Lake. Photo by Johan Persson

It also includes some of Tchaikovsky’s most delicious and memorable melodies with a series of dances where sweets have replaced national stereotypes; Liquorish Allsorts (Spanish), a trio of energetic gobstoppers (Russian), and fluffy pink marshmallows, while Jonathon Luke Baker’s knowing Knickerbocker coils around Clara in a winding Arabian theme.

Knickerbocker is the poster boy of a land ruled by the sense of taste (the entrance is a wide open mouth), and Bourne’s trademark witty choreography is suitably tactile, sensuous, and slightly saucy – be prepared for some consensual licking!

Even the most sweet-toothed may eventually find Sweetieland a little too rich for them.

But who isn’t a sucker for a happy ending? And when fantasy fades to reality once more, it comes with a welcome ray of hope.

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