A chilly Christmas Eve on the streets by Dr Drosselmeyer's emporium.

 Pictures: Bill Cooper

The Nutcracker

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome


It’s Nutcracker, Jim, but not as we know it as Birmingham Royal Ballet launched the city’s festive season with Tchaikovsky’s Christmas masterpiece which has become as traditional as turkey and mince pies in BRB’s home base for the past 31 years.

And, for the first time in Birmingham, this is not the world-renowned Sir Peter Wright version with John Macfarlane’s magnificent sets, but the production adapted by the former director Sir David Bintley and former assistant director Marion Tait to take BRB’s Christmas treat to the Royal Albert Hall in London.

The Albert Hall, as anyone who has been there knows, is a magnificent, cavernous Victorian ancestor of  Symphony Hall. There is no proscenium, no flies and no orchestra pit  – in effect the London production is an arena show.

With the sets and costumes of the original production held together by gaffer tape and hope after more than 1,000 performances, they had become not only tired but a hazard to dancers and so are undergoing an expensive refurbishment all of which means The Nutcracker Mark II has arrived on the Hippodrome stage.

clara and doll

Beatrice Parma as Clara and her Nutcracker doll in an earlier performance

Inevitably that draws comparisons from we old Nutcracker stagers, but for newbies this is still a quite wonderful ballet.

It is very much different to the original, yet very much the same in many ways, if that makes sense. The individual dances are much the same, with the children and young cadets at Dr Stahlbaum’s Christmas Eve party.

We have Dr Drosselmeyer, the magician and automata (posh doll) maker, danced by Valentin Olovyannikov, his assistant, Eric Pinto Cata and the dolls he brings to the party Harlequin, Gus Payne, Columbine, Rosanna Ely, and the lung busting display of the Jack-in-the-Box danced by Max Maslen.

There is still the battle with King Rat, Alexander Yap, and his horde and the land of ice with the Snow Fairy, Ellis Small, and attendants, winds and snowflakes.

The second act brings us the Spanish, Russian and Chinese dances along with the oh so sensual Arabian Dance with Yvette Knight oozing sexuality above Haoliang Feng, Callum Findlay-White and Miles Gilliver.


Let battle commence as the Nutcracker doll takes on King Rat and his horde

And of course, Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score is the same, the difference here being the orchestra have been allowed out into the daylight for once, moving from the depths of the pit to became a sort of roof orchestra above the rear of the set – and if Carling did roof orchestras  . . .

This Royal Ballet Sinfonia, under conductor Paul Murphy, is Birmingham’s other symphony orchestra and not only are they world class but this setting lets you see how many musicians are needed for the full depth of rich sound we often take for granted when they are just a dim glow from below the stage.

The main thread of the story is of Clara, the ballet student, and her Nutcracker doll who turns into her handsome prince.

I struggle to remember seeing a Nutcracker when Karla Doorbar wasn’t Clara, she seemed to have made the role her own, but her student has now graduated to become a ballerina, and she has graduated with honours as The Sugar Plum Fairy, every little girl’s vision of what a ballerina should be and she did it quite beautifully, with Yasuo Atsuji showing an elegant, easy athleticism as The Prince. Their grand pas de deux was a delight.

sugar and prince

César Morales as The Prince and Miki Mizutani as The Sugar Plum Fairy in an earlier performance

Stepping into Clara’s ballet shoes is Reina Fuchigami who gives the role all the childish innocence it needs in a lovely performance while young Kristian Shek, who joined Elmhurst Ballet School in September, from Heritage Dance Studio in Stockton-on-Tees, is Clara’s annoying little pest of a young brother, Fritz

So, the elements are all in place but the set-ups, by the very nature of the Albert Hall, are different. Scene changes are limited. We open with a set and characters, sleighs and a brazier around Herr Dr Drosselmeyer’s shop which could pass muster as the opening to a German production of Scrooge, and then we have the voice of Simon Callow to put the good doctor’s thoughts into words.

Dick Bird’s set is simple but effective. Swivelling mirrored panels can give us glazed French doors for the party scenes, dimmed for the street scenes (lighting, on a splendid new rig, from the skilled vision of Peter Teigen) and swivelled for mirrored walls with a central entrance for the battle with the rats and the land of ice. Above the panels sit the orchestra.

land of snow

A winter scene complete with snow as Birmingham's harbinger of Christmas

Scene changes are minimal, there is no great transformation scene and the basic set remains with the transformations achieved not by the usual brilliant stage crew but by a light show filling the stage and front of house with video projections from 59 Productions to represent the tree growing in size, along with a few giant baubles dropped form the flies for effect.

We have the land of ice chilling the walls and a snow storm, real on stage and peppering the walls in a projected blizzard, snow which keeps up during the interval – which must help coffee sales – while instead of Clara opened Act II on a flying swan we have a giant projection of a bird in flight.

So, for newcomers seeing the ballet for the first time, this is a wonderful production, beautifully danced simple to follow and brimming with enthusiasm from a cast delighted to be back performing.

For Nutcracker old hands it is a new look at an old friend. It might not be the same, but it is still Nutcracker, and a most enjoyable one at that, and it is still the start of Christmas, To 11-12-21,

Roger Clarke


BRB‘s The Nutcracker returns to The Albert Hall 28 - 31 December 2021.

The refurbishment of John Macfarlane’s magnificent sets and costumes is nearing completion with £100,000 needed to finish the work which BRB is hoping to raise in its Big Give appeal (SEE HERE) which runs from 30 November to 7 December and donations up to a total of £50,000 will be doubled by support from Charles Glanville, Marian Mulady and The Kirby Laing Foundation.

First seen in 1990 The Nutcracker was Sir Peter Wright’s gift to Birmingham for giving a new home and new name, BRB, to what was Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet. As a production the cost would be almost certainly out of reach for any single company today – in short, sets and costume were both ground-breaking for the time, and quite magnificent, a pinnacle of design and the set builder’s art. Tickets are already being sold for next year when The Nutcracker will return to the Hippodrome, fully restored and back to its former glory.    

Index page Hippodrome Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre