With a 10ft tree, Santa’s grotto, mulled wine and snowmen walking the length of Hurst Street, you can’t miss Christmas in Southside. But the festive season didn’t start here the evening the first selfie was taken under the tree – it started 29 years ago, when the curtain went up for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s first production of The Nutcracker.
For many, attending the ballet has become an intergenerational tradition – the audience is packed with children, parents, grandparents, couples and friends. It’s a Tuesday evening and there isn’t a spare seat in eyeshot; only a theatre the size of the Hippodrome could house a production of this popularity.
On stage it’s Christmas Eve and children receive their gifts, showing glimpses of the talent that will make them leads in this ballet in a dozen years. By the warmth of the fire, we’re introduced to Clara’s family, Drosselmeyer and the extremely lively jack-in-the-boxes, who possess the ability to jump as high as their own heads. It’s exactly how you picture a Victorian aristocratic Christmas (maybe not the Olympic high-jumping imps, but the rest is…)
But as the clock strikes midnight, sinister goings on are afoot, and the awe that has been owned by dancers up until now is wrestled from them by the incredible set producers. Clara shrinks before our eyes as the Christmas tree appears to take off into the Hurst Street sky, and the toy soldiers that were previously being brandished around by an eight year old boy are now six feet tall and ready to war with the mouse army.
Whilst Act I was a postcard from a 19th century December, the dreamscape we’re transported to is ethereal and majestic. BRB’s narration purposely avoids potential dark spots – it’s not here to chill, but dazzle and delight. And as Clara enters Act II from, flying down to the stage on the back of a swan, the crowd gasp as loudly as they applaud – in two hours of magical moments, this really stands out.
The second half of the play is less of a story and more of a spectacular display of the highest calibre of ballet. The four male ‘winds’ sweep across the stage, the synchronisation of each leap more impressive than the last, but as in years gone by, the stage belongs to the show-stopping Sugar Plum Fairy – immaculate in delivery and storytelling.
As Clara is freed from Drosselmeyer’s spell and returned to normal size, all is well again just in time for Christmas morning. The story doesn’t change, and the choreography reaches the very same insurmountable high standard it was 29 years ago, and that’s what is appealing about this timeless production. This needs no refresh, because Christmas doesn’t need a refresh.
Whether you started attending back in 1990, or you visited the first time last week, traditions start somewhere and the reasons why this ballet is a permanent fixture in families’ calendars each and every year is obvious: Christmas isn’t the same without The Nutcracker.
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker closes on Saturday 14th December. For tickets, click here.
Photo credits: Bill Cooper