First look at Birmingham Royal Ballet’s new Nutcracker after £1 million transformation

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The Christmas classic from Birmingham Royal Ballet returns to Birmingham Hippodrome from Saturday, November 19 to Saturday December 10

The major rebuild of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s iconic The Nutcracker has been unveiled. 

Costing £1 million, made possible thanks to the extraordinary support of hundreds of individuals, numerous trusts and foundations and BRB investment, the refurbished production has retained all its essential elements but, says designer John Macfarlane, it will be brighter and bolder.

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Choreographed by Sir Peter Wright, former artistic director of BRB, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker was a gift for Birmingham to say thank you for welcoming the company when it moved from London to the city in 1990.

For 30 years, the production has been a festive favourite but the sets and costumes had begun to show their age - says John, who designed the original and has managed the rebuild. “The fact is that I can see it’s worn out although a lot of members of the audience wouldn’t really see that,” he says.

“That absolutely is a testament to how this production has been looked after but it does age. It’s also gone twice to Japan, to the Coliseum in London, the Lowry, as well as being used in Birmingham for 20-something performances each year. All these things take a huge toll on it, just the wear and tear of the costumes. It’s done its time well and truly.

“So, it’s a complete rebuild of everything but I’ve kept the production as close to its original as possible. I felt my brief was absolutely that when the curtain goes up the audience know it’s their Nutcracker - that has been the most important thing in my thinking.”

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Birmingham Royal Ballet Nutcracker: Céline Gittens as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Brandon Lawrence as The PrinceBirmingham Royal Ballet Nutcracker: Céline Gittens as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Brandon Lawrence as The Prince
Birmingham Royal Ballet Nutcracker: Céline Gittens as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Brandon Lawrence as The Prince

The rebuild has involved all sets, backdrops, props and costumes from the show’s famous Christmas tree scenery to glittery landscapes of snow. Coming back to the designs has allowed a few minor tweaks, largely due to new fabrics and materials being available and some lessons being learned over the past three decades.

“The nice thing has been it has given me the chance to redesign things and come to a similar result,” says John. “It is extraordinary to me that you can still find a lot of the costume fabrics that we used 30 years ago or very similar from the same suppliers.

“One change we’ve made is with the snowflakes’ costumes. So their bodices were kind of a stretch material and the makers suggested the idea of them being corseted for the new costumes. That’s fine because they don’t have to do all the things that ballerinas have to do like backbends and lifts, and they will look great because it’s a much more beautiful material than the stretch fabric we had before.”

Birmingham Royal Ballet NutcrackerBirmingham Royal Ballet Nutcracker
Birmingham Royal Ballet Nutcracker

The new sets are also lighter, making it easier for the production to tour but they will still all look sumptuous, John promises. “With time the colour palette of the show has slowly gone down and down so I think now the audience will get their much-loved Nutcracker but it will have much more guts to it.

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“For example, the big Christmas tree will be so much brighter - all the baubles and the lurex fabrics which are used to build the branches are all new so they will give out so much gorgeousness.”

It may be 32 years since the show premiered at Birmingham Hippodrome, but John can still remember that launch vividly. “Apart from Peter Grimes in Brussels, I don’t remember a schedule as terrifying as when we put The Nutcracker on the first time.

“None of us was having more than two hours sleep a night in the week or ten days leading up to it opening. But then it opened and it had this fantastic feeling of excitement to it.”

Designs for the new Nutcracker for Birmingham Royal BalletDesigns for the new Nutcracker for Birmingham Royal Ballet
Designs for the new Nutcracker for Birmingham Royal Ballet

The production is famous for its transformation scene in Act One in Clara’s home in which the Christmas tree and the room magically grow in size so that Clara becomes tiny next to the decorations and the fireplace. But John says for a long time he was terrified something would go wrong with that change during a performance.

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“For the first four years I couldn’t watch the Act One set change with the growing Christmas tree. I used to watch the show from the back of the auditorium, in those days you could stand at the back of the stalls, and I would crouch down behind the wall for that bit.

“Brian Baxter, the technical director, was also with me and he would tap me on the head to tell me it was done and the trees were in. I would hear the audience going crazy when the fireplace had done its thing and I would come back up and look.”

The Nutcracker from Birmingham Royal Ballet at Birmingham HippodromeThe Nutcracker from Birmingham Royal Ballet at Birmingham Hippodrome
The Nutcracker from Birmingham Royal Ballet at Birmingham Hippodrome

And he hopes the rebuild will bring back some of that excitement of the early days of the production. “For the first ten years I used to notice a lot that in the interval it was the adults who were crying after the snowflakes scene which was so great for me,” he says. “What was wonderful for me was that the production touched something else, that sense of snow on twigs and childhood and running around in the snow when you were small.

“Over the years though I felt I watched that go a bit as people became used to the show. My deep wish is that, with the rebuild, it gets back the element of dangerous theatre. It does have it, there are a lot of moments where you don’t want to know what would happen if it went wrong. I do know what would happen - which is why I will be crouching under my seat on the opening night again.”

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker plays Birmingham Hippodrome on November 19 to December 10. For information and tickets see: Birmingham Hippodrome

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