Varna International Ballet returns to the Edinburgh Playhouse for a rendition of The Nutcracker, one-third of their triple bill for the 2024 season alongside Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. Despite coming later in the typical Christmas season, the production still adds some festive cheer to a rainy Edinburgh in January.
Mara Salvaggio and Giovanni Pompei both dazzle as Marie and the Prince, respectively. They make the entire performance seem effortless; particularly impressive considering this production doesn’t have a Sugar Plum Fairy – meaning Salvaggio has to perform almost non-stop during the pas de deux in the second act. The rest of the cast shine in their supporting roles, portraying everything from an excitable gaggle of children to a flurry of snowflakes with equal grace. Of course, The Nutcracker is defined by Tchaikovsky’s legendary score – fortunately, from the iconic overture to the final waltz, Music Director and conductor, Peter Tuleshkov and his orchestra deliver.
However, some of the sets and costumes don’t match the gravitas we experience from the cast. Most glaring is the backdrop, a large screen upon which various garish images are projected. Many of the Nutcracker’s most iconic scenes – such as the growing Christmas tree – are relegated to this lacklustre projection, rendering them a little anticlimactic when compared to such atmospheric music and dancing.
There’s also the question of the costumes in the second act, which feel like pale, stereotypical imitations of the cultures they’re meant to represent. With so much rich source material to draw upon, you would hope that by now that these caricatures had been abandoned once and for all. This choice feels especially out of place considering the artistry apparent in many of the other costumes – Drosselmeyer, for example, gets a nicely sinister Venetian-style mask which has the intended effect of unnerving the younger audience members, along with the Rat King’s snazzy attire.
While this version of The Nutcracker may miss a few beats, the talented cast still make it a worthwhile trip to the theatre – and judging by the excited chattering of children as the final curtain came down, it definitely brings out the latent Christmas magic.