Matthew Bourne on 25 years of dance and reworking The Nutcracker

It is 25 years since Matthew Bourne began as a choreographer and director. To celebrate Norwich Theatre Royal is staging three Bourne-again productions, starting with his radical reworking of The Nutcracker! IAN COLLINS reports.

It's a mid-week matinee of Nutcracker! at Sadler's Wells in London, and director Matthew Bourne is among us and taking notes.

Since this is a revival of a revival of a piece he first devised two decades ago, you might have thought the maestro had seen it all before.

But that is the mark of his supreme success — he never stops checking and improving and working towards perfection.

And despite all the millions – and all the minions – that this showbiz legend has garnered in getting on to equal terms with collaborators Sir Cameron Mackintosh and Lord Lloyd Webber, he acts as if he's still starting out on his lonesome and everything hinges on this initial effort.

Actually, the Tchaikovsky Christmas cracker is one of five productions he and his team are honing at this minute – four in various phases of rehearsal and revision, include a Phantom of the Opera tour and one, his long-awaited take on Sleeping Beauty, now beginning from scratch.

For this is the man who, back in the mid-1990s, changed ballet once and forever by fusing it with musical theatre in the tour de force that was his mostly-male and marvellously-malevolent Swan Lake.

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What could have been a millstone, taking the world by storm in tour after global tour, became a gold-plated calling card.

People dragged along by friends and partners thinking they had little interest in dance, and even less in classical ballet, knew from then on that a Bourne-again experience would deliver an exotic and erotic, athletic and comic entertainment paying homage to everything from farce to film in the process

of delivering some seriously original fun.

As well as repolishing the back catalogue – Highland Fling (Les Sylphides) and Nutcracker! – there followed fresh hits (Cinderella, Car Man, Edward Scissorhands) in what has seemed like an endless cycle. And recycle. Each new vehicle has seemed slightly more lustrous than the gleamer going before.

And so it is with the newest Nutcracker!, the fairytale with music by Tchaikovsky, which arrives for an extended run at Norwich Theatre Royal next week.

The delectable confection follows Clara's bittersweet journey from a hilariously bleak Christmas Eve at Dr Dross's Orphanage, which breaks open in Anthony Ward's wonderful design, to a scintillating, ice-skating winter wonderland and then on to humbug heaven in the scrumptious candy kingdom of Sweetieland.

The selection of sweet treats ranges from flamenco-dancing liquorice allsorts to mincing marshmallow girls and prancing ton-up-boy gobstoppers, and culminates in a grand finale featuring a gigantic, Busby Berkeley-style wedding cake.

All of which thrills a cosmopolitan audience on a wintry Wednesday afternoon – from cool London teenagers to coach parties of pensioners from all over the place.

The director will himself award the performance a mark of only seven out of 10 when I challenge him afterwards (how pernickety is that?) but the rest of us love it and most especially, as I point out, the gang of lithe and lively young folk at the front awarding the cast a cheering standing ovation.

Matthew smiles at that. 'Yes, they are the dancers who will be appearing in this evening's show and they wanted to support a colleague making his debut in a leading role in this matinee. That's rather rare.

'Some companies may have a touch of the jealousies shown in the Black Swan movie but we're one big happy family –truly.' I believe him.

Some of these dancers have been with him for 20 years, while others are getting their big breaks.

How wonderful to be part of an ensemble piece which gives so much pleasure and invites individual personality to shine.

And amazingly it is now 25 years since a star-struck lad from Hackney – who had been a stage-door autograph hunter, then a theatre ticket seller and usher –launched himself as a professional choreographer and director.

Cue a celebratory party – and Norwich, thanks to a long-term partnership with the Theatre Royal and director Peter Wilson is, alone of any venue outside London, now lined-up for three.

After Nutcracker! we are being served with extra helpings of Oliver! (July 3 to August 4) and then the Bourne homage to the seminal Joseph Losey film drama of the 1960s and the National Theatre sensation of a decade ago Play Without Words (August 6-11).

We're in for a triple treat.

? Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker!, Norwich Theatre Royal, March 27-31, �36.50-�6.50, 01603 630000,