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Nutcracker at The Tuff Nutt Club, Royal Festival Hall – Southbank Centre

Christmas is a time for tradition. Traditional games, traditional food and, of course, traditional entertainment. For me, this includes Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Now, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say there are only two versions of this show worth talking about. The first is the wonderful Peter Wright production for The Royal Ballet which is now a staple of the Royal Opera House Christmas season. The second is Matthew Bourne’s version which turns up every so often at Sadler’s Wells and on regional tours. That’s it, every other version should be avoided. So, when I was invited to go and see a new version of Nutcracker in the Tuff Nutt Jazz Club at the Royal Festival Hall, I was apprehensive but thought I’d give it a go.

Nutcracker at The Tuff Nutt Club, Royal Festival HallThe story itself concerns a young boy and his father getting ready for Christmas. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel like they are going to have a very merry time as the father is working long hours to pay the overdue bills while the son doesn’t feel they fit in, preferring to play with the fairy on top of the tree than the miniature soldier figure that their father prefers. As their father goes out to work, again, the son falls asleep on the sofa and enters a world where magic happens and what were once inanimate dolls become lively people, ready to party and challenge the world.

Composers Cassie Kinoshi and Rio Kai have taken Tchaikovsky’s original score and jazzed it up, literally. The four-piece combo on the stage played well and provided a lovely backdrop – in their pyjamas – to the dance itself. The cast includes Amonik Melaco, Sam Salter, and Patricia Zhou with Chanelle Anthony, Christie Crosson, Tim Hodges, Lukas Hunt, and Rachel Muldoon and they really bring the humanity of the story over to the audience in fine style using every inch of the thrust stage and the steps between the seats to great effect. There were a couple of times when some of the lifts looked slightly worrying given the relatively low height of the ceiling but you have to admire the choreography which made the story accessible no matter how familiar you were with the original.

The running time has been cut down to just over an hour but purists like me will be pleased to know that all the important elements of the story are there, including all the specialist dances (Russian, Arabian, Chinese and Mirlitons) normally seen in the second act. No spoilers, but each one had a colourful introduction that worked to set them up wonderfully. And, I have to say that I was delighted, they even managed to work in the snowstorm.

Thanks to some lovely work by costume designer Ryan Dawson Laight, it felt that the cast of six was much larger as they disappeared off the stage, did a quick change and then were back as another character. One thing though, when off the stage area, the cast need to remember they may be still in view so having a chat while swigging their water is not necessarily a good idea. But this was a minor thing that will no doubt be sorted as the run continues.

All told, and to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed this new jazz version of Nutcracker. The story is beautifully re-imagined, as is the music, and staging. The cast I saw were wonderful, energetic and talented, and the entire show just felt like a wonderful start to the Christmas season.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

Diving into the glittering winter wonderland head-on, McOnie Company dancers perform to Tchaikovsky’s world famous score, reimagined for an onstage Jazz band by multi-award-winning jazz artist Cassie Kinoshi. It’s Christmas eve and Clive is home alone, waiting for his dad who is working late as usual. But when the Sugarplum fairy and a new toy spring to life, Clive is transported on a wild-spirited adventure filled with a host of dreamlike characters. As Clive embarks on a glittering journey of self-acceptance, this Christmas turns out to be the most magical of all.

Packed with hope, heart and humour, this Nutcracker is for anyone who wants to live life in full technicolour – it’s playful, mischievous and a lot of fun.

Cast includes: Amonik Melaco (Action Man), Sam Salter (Clive) and Patricia Zhou (Sugarplum) with Chanelle Anthony, Christie Crosson, Tim Hodges, Lukas Hunt and Rachel Muldoon.

Directed and choreographed by Olivier Award winner Drew McOnie, Nutcracker is composed by Cassie Kinoshi with additional music by Rio Kai, with venue and set design by Soutra Gilmour, costume design by Ryan Dawson Laight, music supervision by Benjamin Kwasi Burrell, lighting design by Joshie Hariette, sound design by Simon Baker and casting by Will Burton CDG.

The Tuff Nutt Club, Royal Festival Hall – Southbank Centre, London
28 Oct 2023 – 6 Jan 2024
1h 15m (no interval)

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