Review by Daz Gale
No sooner has the last pumpkin been discarded after Halloween that the festive season begins. Mariah Carey has defrosted, Michael Buble has a Christmas job at ASDA and theatre lovers up and down the country take a collective breath as the onslaught of festive shows begins. It was the first weekend of November that saw me unwrap my first festive show of the year, taking in a very different and contemporary adaptation of the classic Nutcracker. But did I think this was a cracker of a show… or just nuts?
A staple at Christmas, when you think of The Nutcracker, you will automatically think of the conventional ballet and will doubtlessly think of sugar plum fairies and toy soldiers while humming the instantly iconic numbers from the show. With this latest reinvention, forget everything you think you know about the show as the rulebook has been well and truly ripped up in a completely reimagined version.
Taking place in a temporary pop-up called the Tuff Nutt Jazz Club at Southbank Centre, Olivier Award winner Drew McOnie takes Tchaikovsky’s famous score and turns it into jazz, played by a band in the extremely intimate venue. It is always a joy to see a new space for theatre pop up, and walking into this environment, tucked behind a food market feels like setting foot into another world. Though it might be a tight squeeze to fit everyone in, the intimacy allows a real connection to emerge from performer to audience.
The two-act ballet is now a single act, lasting one hour as the key elements of the story are blitzed through in an action-packed highlights that never let up. Instead of the usual Clara, the story is centred around a young boy named Clive (Mark Samaras) who struggles to find his own identity, accept who he is, and be accepted by his father. In a contemporary retelling, Nutcracker focuses on gender identity with Clive finding the strength to disregard the perceived norms of society, leading him and his dream characters to express their own identity and wear whatever they like. It is a clever and admirable take on a classic, bringing something new to the story while still retaining its essence, though at times does appear a bit too on the nose as it hammers its crucial message home The focus on Clive’s relationship with his father provides an emotive aspect to the show, particularly as it draws to a close with a beautiful letter to Santa reads out by Tim Hodges in the role of Clive’s father.
Drew McOnie’s choreography is every bit as exquisite as you might expect as the cast of eight move around, telling the story through nothing but movement in a truly glorious accomplishment. Patricia Zhou and Amonik Melaco give great performances as Sugar Plum and Action Man., impressing with their performance and ability to convey the story through a sense of childlike wonder. Mark Samaras leads the cast in the role of Clive, having stepped into the role due to a cast injury. He delights as the innocent and confused Clive, growing into the character as he embarks on his journey in a truly delightful performance. Chanelle Anthony, Tim Hodges, Lukas Hunt and Rachel Muldoon make up the outstanding ensemble that bring McOnie’s vision to life.
The classic songs are given new life through composer Cassie Kinoshi and musical director Rio Kai. Performed by the jazz band on a small stage, the idea to transform this story into a jazz club setting may not be the most obvious of choices, making it somewhat hard to grasp the concept, The juxtaposition of the setting and music to the classic we all know and love is a hard one to come to terms with but it is hard to resist the charms so it's not long before you fall in love with this new style.
The beautiful aesthetic can’t be faulted, with a gorgeous use of lighting by Joshie Harriette particularly impressing during a sequence where Action Man takes six drinks, all of different colour, and the stage transforms with it. It may be a minor detail but in such a tight space, it really was a fantastic transformation. McOnie’s direction also thrills as his unconventional vision for this takes shape.
Nutcracker at the Tuff Nutt Jazz Club is a great idea for a show and has been executed tremendously. You can't help but buy into the festive spirit as you experience a flurry of slow (and the hilarious way it was disposed of). Traditionalists may struggle to accept this new version but others will welcome this new approach with open arms. Drew McOnie should be commended for his bold vision and the execution of it. As Jamie Lloyd’s Sunset Boulevard proved, sometimes it’s worth taking a risk on a classic to keep theatre fresh and bring something new to the table. While this production may not feature any Pussycat Dolls, it still makes for a cracking hour.
Nutcracker at the Tuff Nutt Jazz Club is playing until 6th January 2024. Tickets from https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk
Photos by Mark Senior