Review: The Nutcracker, Cardiff Castle Christmas Festival, Cardiff

Andy Howells reviews the first presentation of Cardiff Castle Christmas Festival, A welsh twist on the classic ballet, The Nutcracker.

After two rather muted Christmas Seasons due to the pandemic, I’ve been approaching the forthcoming festive season and particularly the live entertainment with a view that I’d like to watch something a bit extra special and different this year. Cardiff Castle Christmas Festival’s full-length contemporary ballet of The Nutcracker is Wales’ first reimagining of its kind certainly sounded like it would fit the bill as my first Christmas show of the year.

Directed and choreographed by Jamiel Devernay Laurence, The Nutcracker features Tchaikovsky’s familiar music, scored not only for classical but also contemporary jazz. This twist immediately pushes the presentation into new boundaries, utilising modern dance and visual comedy as the familiar Nutcracker tale is relocated to Wales through the William’s Family Christmas.

In the intimate setting of the Spiegeltent, Sunday afternoon’s audience focused on the centre stage as if it were a magical looking glass. The view was the dream world of lead protagonist, Carys and her Uncle Idris which came vividly to life through a battle, a snowstorm, and Uncle Idris very own variety show.

Although this ensemble cast was considerably smaller than some of those featured in previous versions of The Nutcracker I’ve seen, this didn’t detract from my enjoyment. In fact, it enabled me to appreciate the ensemble performers more as they tumbled, lifted, and danced forward to the front of the stage.

Carys’ family included strong characterisations from dancers Luke Bafico (Fysil) and Thea Martin (Mari), both of whom I particularly enjoyed their solo moments, both of whom displayed a strong ability to keep the audience attention. I also loved the vivaciousness Amber Howells (Mother) displayed on occasion which worked well with her on-stage chemistry with Cameron Everitt (Father).

The arrival of Uncle Idris along with show girls Tegwen and Teleri, quickly started to drive the narrative along as the family exchanged presents. Constant Vigier delivered energy and charisma through his performance of the eccentric uncle, while I found both the combination of visual comedy and dance from Chloe Davies and Rebecca Long as Tegwen and Teleri highly entertaining.  

Zach Parkin’s portrayal of the manifestation of the Welsh folklore character Mari Lwyd, an eponymous hobby horse topped with a horse’s skull (as opposed to the Mouse King in other versions of The Nutcracker) was a particular triumph projecting mysticism with a dreamlike otherworldliness. Mari Lwyd’s transformation into The Nutcracker was as joyous as the reaction of Carys herself.

Ffion Elmer effectively displayed a variety of emotion as Carys making her both identifiable and real, so much so, I noticed a little girl copying her dance moves towards the climax of the show. What an inspiration!

Among The Nutcracker’s other highlights were several cast members icy portrayals of showpiece snowflakes as they shook, tumbled, and avalanched towards Carys and The Nutcracker. There was also Owen Morris’ knockabout portrayal of Grandad aided and abetted by Linda Sims as Bopa Linda and Sheila Williams as Bopa Sheila.

While all five performances of The Nutcracker have now passed, I hope this isn’t the last we see or hear of this wondrous presentation. It was certainly an early Christmas treat and refreshingly different from the usual theatrical offerings combining Christmas tradition with Welsh culture in the grounds of Cardiff Castle.

I look forward to further delights from Cardiff Castle Christmas Festival as both Santa’s Wish and Castellana debut next weekend.

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