THE familiar terpsichorean Nutcracker is all about Sugar Plum Fairies and magical, exotic dancing and the only thing it shares with Tom Morris’s farewell huzzah to Bristol Old Vic is a rather strange visitor with a special gift for the daughter of the house.
Hoffman and Tchaikovsky go for Dr Drosselmeyer, who turns into the Nutcracker Prince. In the Bristol version he’s the tweedy, unaccountably tearful Mr Choke, a clockmaker who knows he can stretch time, make it go faster or go slower, but cannot make it stop … or make it go backwards.
Claire is a bright little girl who lives with her sparky brother Eddie, her work-obsessed mother and her kindly but hopelessly optimistic father. None of them has time for Claire, who dreams of an imaginary unicorn who she can rid of her shackles and set free.
From there, Tom Morris, director Lee Lyford and MD (and spunky Mouse Queen), Gwyneth Herbert concoct a story of love, excitement, cruelty, greed, faith, hope and empathy, a sort of deconstruction of the story with tutus we all know. It looks wonderful (thanks to the set by Tom Rogers) and it sounds wonderful, thanks to Gwyneth Herbert’s pulsating songs and clever lyrics. It is very, very clever. It makes topical and relevant points about society, social media, community, communication and much more.
The exciting denouement, that battle between the Nutcracker and the mice, delights the younger members of the audience, still waiting to catch a glimpse of Charli the Unicorn. There is so much to love and admire about this show, but is it just too sophisticated for a younger audience? Or do we remind ourselves that the younger family members have Belle and Sebastian in the theatre’s Weston Studio?
The performances are electrifying. Denzel Baidoo was in his final year at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School when the lockdown struck, and he (and his fellow students) lost their chance to appear on the Old Vic’s historic stage. He made up for it in sensational fashion in the title role, dancing his heart out. Tristan Sturrock makes a welcome return as the mysterious Mr Choke, a man lost in the cogs and pulleys of his creations, always searching for the son he has lost.
Mae Munuo is the perfect Claire, passionate, lonely and ever hopeful. Guy Hughes is her brother, and also a charming Curley Pearly. The roles of the parents bring Patrycja Kujawska and Kirris Riviere back to Bristol after many visits with Kneehigh and the Tobacco Factory, respectively. Composer, singer and musician Gwyneth Herbert is a life force, belting out her songs and adding danger to the plot. She leads the band, Harry Bird and James Gow, with all the panache and fun audiences have come to expect at the Old Vic.
This Christmas play is on until 7th January, performed in one of the country’s most beautiful, historic auditoriums, full of the atmosphere of Christmases past and the thrill of live performance.