The Nutcracker, Royal Ballet: as grand and as magical as Christmas entertainment gets

Up to the challenge: the Royal Ballet performing The Nutcracker
Up to the challenge: the Royal Ballet performing The Nutcracker - Alastair Muir

It’s all too easy to get blasé about the dear old Nutcracker. After all, this balletic take on the ETA Hoffmann fairy-tale does come round (in apparently endless different productions) year after year as sure as roast turkey, its narrative tends to make little or no sense, and Act II often has younger audience members starting to fidget in their seats.

However, and especially set as it is on the evening of December 24, its Christmassy credentials are impeccable. And with the right people involved – and the resources to make their efforts fly – it can be the grandest and most magical festive show there is.

Step forward Peter Wright and the Royal Ballet, whose Nutcracker returned to Covent Garden on Wednesday evening. Still active at 97, the producer-choreographer created this production way back in 1984. But, far from let it stagnate over its 40-odd years, he has constantly nudged it forwards – introducing conjuring elements from his (similarly resplendent) 1990 staging for Birmingham Royal Ballet, and quietly making culturally sensitive tweaks to the international Act II divertissements years before that sort of thing was fashionable. What’s more, as this first night reminded you, he not only gets Clara properly involved in Act II – unusually so – but also gives the show a prologue, epilogue and something resembling a genuine plot.

Meanwhile, the late Julia Trevelyan Oman’s terrific Biedermeier-era designs (on, let’s not forget, that magnificent Royal Opera House stage) generate exactly the right combination of domestic magnificence and cosy, night-before-Christmas frisson – the transformation scene has repeatedly made my six-year-old son’s jaw drop – and Tchaikovsky’s wonder of a score is the bread-and-butter of the house orchestra (on fine form on the night). Yes, Royal Ballet tickets can be eye-wateringly expensive. But some cost just £10 – and even at full price, this is a show that offers very considerable bang for your buck.

All that said, it does, of course, also very much need a cast up to the considerable challenge of Wright’s take on the 1892 Ivanov/Petipa choreography. And on Wednesday, it found it. Although perhaps not offering any psychological surprises, Sae Maeda was a very dainty Clara, while Joseph Sissens (as Hans-Peter/The Nutcracker) brought virility and a real emotional urgency to their pas de deux. In Act II, Melissa Hamilton and Lukas B Brændsrød made poised, sultry work of the Arabian Dance – the stand-outs of Wednesday’s globe-trotting “diverts” – and Fumi Kaneko and William Bracewell made a regal, almost aloof Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince, he particularly strong in his Grand Pas variation.

Joseph Sissens as the Nutcracker and Sae Maeda as Clara
Joseph Sissens as the Nutcracker and Sae Maeda as Clara - Alastair Muir

Throughout, the corps were sharp, while Gary Avis’s playfully charismatic Drosselmeyer powered the whole thing on magnificently. Pouncing on every possible physical and facial nuance, he constantly reminded you that this staging is not only a marvellous Christmas fantasia (though it certainly is that), but also the affecting tale of a magician trying to rescue and reunite with his long-lost nephew.

A quick mention, too, for a production at the polar end of the opulence scale. McOnie Company’s Nutcracker – at the Southbank Centre’s intimate, pop-up Tuff Nut Club – is a little jewel of a show (rating: ****). Only an hour long, and more or less in the round by a cast of just six, it ingeniously recasts the score for jazz quartet and the plot as a boy’s sexual awakening, and has warm-hearted mischief coming off it like steam.

Mark Samaras and Tim Hodges in the McOnie Company's Nutcracker, at the Southbank Centre
Mark Samaras and Tim Hodges in the McOnie Company's Nutcracker, at the Southbank Centre - Mark Senior

Is it a valid alternative to the Royal Ballet’s purring Rolls-Royce of a show? Not quite. But see it instead as a fabulous, witty complement to it – and compliment to the marvellous robustness of those Tchaikovsky melodies – and you won’t, I promise, be disappointed.

The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker is in rep until Jan 13 (020 7304 4000;; McOnie’s runs until Jan 6 (