NUTCRACKER at the Tuff Nutt Jazz Club
“McOnie’s clarity of vision and impeccable execution results in a production that is fun, fanciful, and doesn’t take itself too seriously”
Entering the Tuff Nutt Jazz Club, squirrelled away underneath the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank, you can already tell you’re in for a treat of a production. A cool terrazzo topped bar awash with warm and inviting diffuse lighting greets you whilst upbeat, mildly festive jazz plays through the speakers to get you in to the spirit for one of dance’s quintessential Christmas favourites, reimagined.
Director-Choreographer Drew McOnie has devised a fresh and modern take on the classic ballet that maintains much of the structure but plays with form. Rather than Clara, we have Clive, who is waiting for Christmas in his small flat with his financially stressed father who would rather Clive played with Action Man than the fairy on the top of the Christmas tree. These two do not understand each other, but over the course of the next hour, through fantastical imaginings in Clive’s dreams, they come closer together.
Part of The Nutcracker’s enduring legacy is Tchaikovsky’s 19th century score, with key pieces, such as the dance of the sugar plum fairy, instantly recognisable and memorable. In McOnie’s production, these classical pieces are interpreted with a jazz influence by composer Cassie Kinoshi. Many of the most-loved refrains still drive the score, but are saxophone forward, reflecting the composer’s own instrument of choice. The four piece band, casually dressed in pyjamas, are perched on a small stage at the top of the club and are a pleasure to watch alongside the main action of the dancers.
But it is, of course, the dancers that take centre stage. Mark Samaras is utterly charming in the lead role of Clive, believable as a young boy all wide-eyed with wonder, whilst displaying a maturity of movement through self-assured rhythm and flow, all the more impressive given he is covering the role due to injury. Amonik Melaco as the modern nutcracker, Action Man, gives us a convincing transition from stereotypical masculinity to a more nuanced and fluid expression. His pas-de-deux with Sugar Plum Patricia Zhou towards the emotional climax of the piece is uplifting, physically and spiritually. The small cast of six are all strong and supple with heaps of charisma, each bringing a unique flavour, quite literally, to the piece.
“a sense of excitement to keep you on the edge of your seat”
A large part of what makes McOnie’s production so engaging is the intimacy afforded to it through the jazz club setting meaning you are close enough to see the sweat and catch a wink from the ensemble. There’s also tongue-in-cheek humour employed in unexpected ways. An interlude after the entry to Dreamland and the Waltz of the Snowflakes sees two of the snowflakes, in sequins and ski goggles, re-enter the stage with gold foiled leaf blowers to clear the confetti snow to a muzak version of the previous piece. Those faint of heart beware the front row! The leaps and bounds of the performers will be a whiskers width from you, but do not fear – these dancers are so in tune with their bodies there will be no risk of a collision, only a sense of excitement to keep you on the edge of your seat.
It all comes together as a beautifully constructed and almost immersive production. Set and venue design by Soutra Gilmour and costume by Ryan Dawson Laight are a real mash up of eras and styles with orange and brown tones screaming 1970s, contrasting with the bubblegum brights and sequins of Dreamland. The combination gives a familiarity of the festive season whilst keeping it contemporary and in line with the themes of the piece.
Reinterpreting such an iconic piece may appear a daunting task, but McOnie’s clarity of vision and impeccable execution results in a production that is fun, fanciful, and doesn’t take itself too seriously, whilst still employing the highest standards of creativity and artistry. A jolly production to kick off the festive season.
NUTCRACKER at the Tuff Nutt Jazz Club
Reviewed on 4th November 2023
by Amber Woodward
Photography by Mark Senior
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