The longest journey begins with a single dance step. Not quite accurate, but the Ambassador Theatre Group’s mammoth tour of ‘Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!’ began this weekend at Bromley and between now and landfall next May in Dublin expects to deliver over 200 performances.

It’s titled ‘Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!’ in deference to his highly-regarded production at Sadler’s Wells in 2002 (which also had its preview week in Bromley) and whilst Tchaikovsky and original choreographer Balanchine would certainly disown it for its pantomime staging and pre-recorded music, it’s questionable whether even Bourne himself would embrace this diluted and denatured touring version.

A retired Royal Ballet dancer of my acquaintance says her favourite part of Nutcracker is the Snowflake dance but that it was ‘murder’ on her feet and her pointe shoes. Well, not in this production, Darcey, because there’s no pointe work and the choreography is simplified until it could be hoofed by the average West End chorine. It’s the balletic equivalent of de-skilling cooking jobs in McDonalds so they can be done by school leavers.

So perhaps it’s not all about well-executed gargouillades and fouettés en tournant, or the wobbly lifts and unsynchronised corps de ballet work don’t matter in a production where characterization is all? The initial setting is strong, a dour monochrome orphanage which could have you think you’d accidentally wandered in to Annie and in which Dr and Mrs Dross (think a camper Herr Flick in vinyl batwing tailcoat, and a more pliable Mrs Danvers with liver-shaded lipstick) preside over an orphanage of toyless teens. Combining Prussian sadism with a touch of ‘Spring Awakening’ it becomes only slightly repetitive in the eternal pouting selfishness of the Dross’ own children across several scenes, although Fritz is decidedly the best of the young dancers. Sadly, the programme doesn’t list names on a day-by-day basis, as three or more share each role in a rotating cast of 20.

In a clever transformation, we move first to the frozen lake where the milieu and the costumes are more distinctly Russian and the skaterish sliding steps make a satisfactory shushing sound on the make-believe ice although the Waltz of the Snowflakes is distinctly dodgy and out-of-time, but as we proceed to Sweetieland it becomes more tackily ‘Seaside Special’ with a three-tier cake set, gaudy costumes pandering to some designer’s leather fetish in the liquorice accessories, a pugnacious humbug in a fat suit resembling a diabetic’s nightmare of Elton John and a lot more lascivious writhing and finger-licking than might be good for the seven-year olds in their first tutus in the front row.

It’s not all bad, and children will love it, but it does feel a lot more like a pantomime than a ballet. All Dick Whittington and no entrechat.

Runs until 12th November 2011 and then touring

The Public ReviewsOriginally published on The Public Reviews.