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The magic of The Nutcracker comes to Birmingham

If you're venturing to the Birmingham Hippodrome by car this year to watch a show, be sure to give yourself plenty of time to get there, writes Steve Leath.

Celine Gittens as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Brandon Lawrence as The Prince. Pic by Bill Cooper.
Celine Gittens as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Brandon Lawrence as The Prince. Pic by Bill Cooper.

Birmingham Council has changed where you can and can't drive, closing off and digging up roads creating a scene akin to one of the escape room challenges that keep popping up, you'll find yourself gridlocked, trapped inside car parks that seemingly never have a space opening up before you, in a web of traffic under neon light. Eventually we find the Birmingham Rag Market car park serves us well, but stressed we are.

What we need at this point is something to ring us back down, to calm the senses, what we need right now is ..The Nutcracker.

The Birmingham Royal Ballet brings back to the stage the festive treat we all need this year. This year even more sparkling after an extensive restoration programme of John MacFarlanes Gorgeous sets and costumes that were designed 30 years ago . One thousand performances later and 1.2 million people have seen the show since then while £400,000 has been raised, which ensures that this production by Sir Peter Wright continues to delight for years to come.

Now I've mentioned the 'B', word already , and I don't mean 'Birmingham', but well come back to that. If you know what the Nutcracker is then you've heard about the BRB's production no doubt and I'm preaching to the converted, so for you in the know, yes its back on, yes it's as good as it always is, glowing brighter than ever after the make over, yes you know where to get tickets, job done, enjoy.

But to those who aren't familiar with The Nutcracker it's the one with those soldiers in it, you know those funny little wooden soldiers that pop up in shops all over the place at Christmas. What about Sugar plum Fairies ? Ringing any bells yet?

Well let me briefly tell you, it's the story of Clara, we join her and guests in a sumptuous manor house, complete with roaring fireplace, huge luscious red draped interiors, a grand staircase and glistening Christmas tree.

The scene is set the party is on, a number of guests join us, the Hippodrome Orchestra is in full flow, children and adults dance, there flamboyant dresses swirling and twirling as they do, and boxes are bought in where dancers pop out, toys taking there time on the stage to enchant.

A magician performs tricks and gives gifts, including a Nutcracker to our lead Cara. So mesmerised is she with it that when everyone is is asleep in bed she creeps back down to retrieve it from under the tree.

It seems the magicians tricks were not confined to the party alone and as the clock strikes 12 the whole room grows, and grows until the set is transformed and we find Clara now a very much smaller Clara, dwarfed under a now giant Christmas tree, where a horde of giant dancing rats leap out of the flames of the fire and attack Clara. The Nutcracker springs to life and summons a box of toy soldiers to do battle and save our Clara.

Celine Gittens as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Brandon Lawrence as The Prince. Pic by Bill Cooper.

The Nutcracker turns into a handsome prince and we are led by dance into mysterious land of snow and ice, at one point we find Clara soaring above and across the land on a giant flying swan that is simply stunning in its elegance as it flys. More battles with our Rat King ensue, this time in the setting of a beautifully grand hall complete with giant columns, flowers, the sun and moon. Clara joins in many of the dances and is transformed into the Sugar Plum fairy, the ballerina she dreams of being. She dances with her handsome prince but alas as the dancing reaches its climax the dream worlds can not last, and she finds herself awaking from the spell, now a normal little girl underneath the glowing Christmas tree.

Now let's address that 'B' word, yes its Ballet. I have to confess I have seen The Nutcracker in Birmingham before, it was some 12 years or so ago that I was given tickets as a gift. ''Ballet, that's just not my thing'', or so I thought. I went not wanting to waste the gift, and I was astounded at the beauty and the magic of the performance. Let's start with the music, the soundtrack to The Nutcracker is a wonderful score, and performed here as you would expect, beautifully. A score worthy of sitting in anybody's house on CD or download, as it does now in my house and will be played in the background over our own coming festivities at home. If you think your not really interested in Orchestral music your wrong. Have you watched Harry Potter? Star Wars even? Like those and so many other visual spectacles, it is a mixture of ingredients and music is a big one. The thought of going to watch a show without dialogue was alien to me before, yet I love to listen to relaxing beautiful music, even better here performed live, and we find it accompanying the most gorgoeus dancing you will of seen. What is it about this type of dancing that is so relaxing and special to watch I thought to myself. The amount of physically that goes into it, the amount of painstaking hours of training that these dancers must go through to get to this level, I dare think the physical toil it must take on the body, and all to get to a point where they can spin on tippy toes, and fly though the air as though it is effortless, as though the wind itself has lifted them up and carries them. And it has to be at this level of quality and craftsmanship otherwise it just wouldn't work.

The sets are gorgeous, I could literally take over the stage and would happily spend a few hours just sitting in each one with a cup of tea, surrounded by the worlds created. I wont give a clue to how the set transforms from a real sized world into a giant one but change it does quickly and smoothly, and it really is a simply clever way that it moments were there with them, in the land of six foot rats. At one point snow falls from the sky onto the stage, even the flakes fall with elegance and grace, the lighting by David Finn is such a treat, you can feel the ambience of the settings change around you, and the way the light makes the dancers dresses glow is wonderfully atmospheric. In other hands this could kill the whole show but BRB have it just right.

So if you've not been to the ballet before, don't be put off by the 'B' word, forget its that. This is a truly sensory experience, a journey, wrapped in the magic of Christmas. If you've never been to the theatre before, you don't know what your missing. If someone was to step foot into one, just twice in there life for me it would be for Les Miserables, yes there's a big fuss for a reason and the other, would be for The Nutcracker here in Birmingham. If they were to go just once then it would be this production I would choose for them. Why you may ask.. Well the ting is we see amazing acting performances on the big screen cinema or at home, all the time, great storytelling and so on and although the Theatre is amazing and a different thing to a screen, I would get some joy out of watching say Les Mis, a stage production on a cinema screen (although in truth I don't get the popularity of these screened theatre shows now, it isn't the same), but I would feel cheated, knowing what I know now, to see this on a screen. You have to be here, to actually physically feel the show seep within you, to hear musical notes played in the room your in, to feel the stillness, for the body to adjust to the calmness that watching these performers at the top of there game brings upon you. The word beautiful is used a lot in daily life but think about it, how many things do we encounter daily, weekly, possibly yearly even that are made to be as beautiful as they can be, made without compromise of cost, made by the human hand and not a computer designed mass produced copy of what was once crafted. What we have here before us on the stage should be witnessed by all, as an example of what we as humans on this planet can achieve. Yes it will take a mind boggling level of commitment and dedication, and sweat and tears im sure but here before us we have the results tonight. It is crafted, its elegant, it mesmerises you captivates you, enchants you, it is ..well it is beauty in its most pure form, its an exhibition of what humanity can do at its best. Well at least what they on stage can, me on the other hand well.. I'll pay them to show me what can be done, how about that. Any pay them you will, yes its not cheap, but find the money, save up and you will not think it overpriced by a penny.

Christmas is a magic time of the year for most of us with folklore, tradition which we love and I would happily add this to my annual calendar as part of that, I would never tire of having my soul taken to the place that it goes to here, as witness this spectacle. Last week I wasn't ready for the Christmas biscuit boxes that were popping up in my local supermarket or the adverts now on the TV, too soon, too soon I thought, but tonight it snowed in Birmingham and a saw a girl flying across a moonlit sky on a giant swan, I saw dancing toys and giant rats fought off by toy soldiers, tonight The Nutcracker brought the magic of Christmas to me.

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