For me it doesn't feel like Christmas until I've seen the English National Ballet production of The Nutcracker. Since singing in this show as a child, it has become an essential part of my festive season, symbolising the start of Christmas.
Every year I notice something different about the production, a tiny detail that particularly delights me. Thanks to talented choreographer Wayne Eagling, the last few years of the ENB Christmas show have been unbeatable. This year I was amazed by the exceptional children, who seem to take on more ensemble and solo dancing than ever before and dance with a confidence and vivacity to rival the adults. Siblings Lowri and Rowan Shone take on the parts of young Clara and Freddie, and they are both wonderful actors, producing witty mock arguments and dancing well too.
I was pleased to hear the snowflake chorus being sung live once more. Saving costs by not using a separate children's choir, the English National Ballet kids have to step up to the challenge, and though they look very pretty they don't quite reach the top notes securely.
Bridgett Zehr dances as Clara, her debut in this role. Zehr is a strong dancer, though her strained facial expressions often distracted me. She moves elegantly and eloquently on stage and as she dances the Sugar Plum Fairy her talent is evident. She makes a good foil to her partner, Nephew, danced by Esteban Berlanga. Together they produce some classic showy dancing, they make it look seamless and effortless and it was beautiful to watch.
The set looks even more spectacular than usual, with a mock ice skating rink, a growing Christmas tree, falling snow and flying hot air balloons... a dose of Christmas magic for children and adults alike, so imaginative and brilliantly executed that it makes you gasp when the curtain rises.
The orchestra seem to have a great time in the pit, you can tell they enjoy playing this annual piece of Tchaikovsky. Conductor Gavin Sutherland gives a sterling performance leading the troops, he puts his heart and soul into coordinating the musicians and dancers. My only quibble is that I think the orchestra could be a touch louder throughout.
As enchanting as ever, I am in no doubt that this is the Nutcracker production that best captures the essence of Christmas, and if you see any this is the one to pick.