Tchaikovsky’s ballet is considered by many to be the first herald of the Christmas season. Forget Elf on the Shelf and the dread appearance of baubles on supermarket shelves, The Nutcracker is the most important sign that you can officially start to feel Christmassy.
The Birmingham Royal Ballet has been staging The Nutcracker for the past 27 years and it has become a real Birmingham Christmas institution. This year, for the first time, both of my girls are old enough to attend a performance together (under 3s not being admitted at the Hippodrome theatre), so I booked tickets for us three and a friend, Beth, and her daughter Maisie. I paid a little extra to have the tickets sent to us so that I could stick them on the pinboard. I like to have a physical reminder of something to look forward to, especially when the kids’ dinner or bed time is getting a little wearing on the soul.
Some days before the performance, I called up the Hippodrome to see what surrounding activities to the performance there might be. There was the chance, for £10, to see the performers practising on stage for an hour a little while before the matinee performance. Unfortunately I wasn’t told about the Audience Open Day (12-2:30, free to matinee ticket holders) that allowed you to peek behind the scenes and see the set-up for the performance, which I’m sure our girls would have enjoyed. It’s a lesson for future days out at the Hippodrome but, not knowing what we were missing, we still enjoyed the build up to the performance.
Parking is fairly easy around the streets of the Hippodrome and there are numerous car parks within easy walking distance. Some friends (hello Anna and Christie!) visited the German Market before going to the performance but I weighed up the possibilities of losing at least one child in the crush and found them to be more like probabilities, so we stayed close. The Green Room café and bar is exactly opposite the Hippodrome and a call two days in advance secured us a table for 5 just ahead of the matinee. Service was incredibly swift and relatively inexpensive, with familiar kids’ options, so we felt well looked-after.
From our seats in the Upper Circle (the gods!) we had a perfect eagle-eye view of the whole stage. The lights dimmed and the orchestra thrummed into life. My eldest looked enchanted. For about twenty seconds and then she turned to me to ask when the dancers were going to start.
Luckily they did and the opening scene of the perfect Christmas Eve was as perfect as you could imagine. The Nutcracker premiered on 18th December 1892 in St Petersburg but didn’t reach Britain until 1934 and it wasn’t until the 1950/60s that it became synonymous with Christmas, which shows how little time it has taken to meld itself into our celebrations. I’m pretty sure that the Nutcracker has now so deeply entered the western psyche that no Christmas will ever be good enough until it can be spent decorating a vast tree in a mansion’s echoing staircase hall (colleagues of mine in the national heritage organisation who spend weeks decorating hundreds of them in the run up to Christmas might be the only ones with a good reason to disagree).
From the start, our girls were captivated by the music, the colour, the dancing and the spectacle. Each dance, from the first, seemed to be timed just long enough to appreciate the vast skill of each dancer and to advance the plot without tiring young watchers.
Even so, it wasn’t until the scenery of the house fell away to be replaced with the dream world that Clara shrinks into that the elder girls fell entirely under the Nutcracker’s spell. The fight between the Nutcracker and the Rat King that breaks his enchantment was deeply appreciated by all three girls who pronounced it “the best bit” afterwards (apologies to all other dancers who put their hearts and souls into their work – you can’t beat a scrap with a rat). For our part, us mums loved the Jack-in-the-Box for his athleticism and fabulous costume.
Some time into the first half, my youngest fell asleep on my lap (“the most expensive afternoon nap ever!” as Beth noted). With her otherwise engaged and my eldest completely enthralled, I had the chance to concentrate on the stagecraft of the dancers and their astonishing prowess. Clara (Karla Doorbar) and the Nutcracker (Cesar Morales) in particular should be commended for their presence and poise. Nevertheless, the entire stage was alight with talent and you could rest easy in the knowledge that you were in the hands of a stellar cast whose performances would not falter.
Half time came (with icecreams) and went in a blink and soon we were re-entering the magical world of the Nutcracker. Clara entered from stage right on the back of a flying swan in a scene that had my heart in my mouth. I’m pretty sure that, if I had been a five year old, that would have burned itself into my imagination forever (but no, the Rat King won out!).
The well-known parade of national dances began, with some fabulous physical comedy from the Chinese Dance duo. The music of the Nutcracker is so famous that it sneaks into everything from elevator musak to food commercials but on watching a live performance you are reminded of it’s beauty and depth. So many pieces are memorable for a reason: they are uniformly brilliant. Add ballet dancing, glittering costumes and attractive sets and the combination is breath-taking.
Sometime in the second half my youngest woke up (to my back’s delight) and starting whinging tiredly (to my neighbour’s dismay). I held on as long as I could but eventually had to take her outside for the last fifteen minutes. Although I was sorry to have missed it, I still felt satisfied to have seen so much of a brilliant show. Next year I shall definitely try again, and again, until we can manage the whole thing. It’s a lot to ask of small children to sit for so long, I know, but I think that to participate in a cultural event like this is important. And so the indoctrination into the alliance between The Nutcracker and a ‘proper’ Christmas continues.
As we left we agreed that it was truly lovely to see how spellbound the eldest girls were and how genuine their instant applause was for each dance. They were totally hooked, even without our encouragement.
The traffic leaving the city centre was, as you might expect, fairly dreadful on the way out but we passed the time with breaking up back seat screaming matches (don’t worry, it was for laughs and ended in massive hugs) and discussing exactly what mirlitons are or were. We think they’re a reference to sweet pastries but we’re not 100% sure. There was 80% agreement (the youngest was still in a contrary mood) that the Nutcracker was absolutely excellent and well worth the visit. I would have happily gone straight back in for the evening performance if I hadn’t had to take the children home to bed.
Anna Dreda, the owner of our fantastic local independent book shop, had found out a little musical children’s book of the Nutcracker for me when I told her we were going to see it. This book has now become an important part of my kids’ night time routine and already it feels that bedtime wouldn’t be the same without a thumping rendition of the Russian Dance or a sweeping Waltz of the Flowers. I don’t think we’ll be giving the Birmingham Royal Ballet any cause for concern in the next couple of years but who knows what lovely things in my children’s futures might have been sparked by this performance?
The Nutcracker is on until December 13th and has proven very popular. If you can get tickets, I urge you to go. You won’t want to miss out. And what would Christmas be without it…?
Price: Tickets from £20, but you’ll be lucky if you snag those. We paid £50 for ours, postage from £1.50.
Running Time: 2hrs 15 mins, one interval
Age: 5 up to 105 (no under 3s admitted)
Production by Sir Peter Wright, Design by John Macfarlane.
Four and a half plums from us – the half for missing out on the free Open Day!