Knickerbocker glory

Dance - Peter Conrad relishes Matthew Bourne's campily confected extravaganza

Christmas is a set of recently invented traditions, none of which is odder than the inevitable recurrence of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. Who, I wonder, decided that a ballet about militaristic toys and a plague of domestic rodents was apt festive entertainment? Tchaikovsky's score is ravishing, but - with its episodes of convulsive violence and its fraught sensual yearning - hardly suitable for children. Perhaps the attraction is the sugary binge that celebrates the massacre of the mice: Clara and her wooden soldier waft illogically off to a candied Arcady, where their diet consists exclusively of sweets. Luckily, the diver-tissements end before obese bloating and dental caries can set in.

English National Ballet, performing at the London Coliseum, tweaked the tradition last month by engaging Gerald Scarfe to design a new production of The Nutcracker which Christopher Hampson choreographed. Scarfe counteracts the gooey cosiness of the setting with acid colours and synthetic surfaces (he nicknames the maid Polly Ester). This is a Nutcracker for the suburbs, situated within easy reach of a shopping mall. The spiky-haired enchanter Drosselmeyer is hired out for the party from a Magic Supermart, and spices up the evening with some piston-pumping disco moves; the boy of the household gets a plastic machine-gun for Christmas. Garish, gift-wrapped technological novelties are on display for the neighbours to ogle. The heroine Clara sneaks downstairs to gawp at a wide-screen television, and the land of snow is frostily exhaled from the open door of a new fridge-freezer.

Scarfe's innocuous home is invaded by what Freud called the unheimlich. A pity that the concept, as the ENB describes it, falters in the second act, which trots out the customary parade of pirouetting bonbons and parodic national types - Spanish matadors, Arab houris, Chinamen with legs like chopsticks and a literally bearish Russian. At Sadler's Wells, Matthew Bourne has managed to make psychological sense out of Tchaikovsky's episodic scenario in a production that is at once knowingly witty and emotionally acute, a campily confected extravagance that turns into a nightmare. The show is titled - or should I say branded - Nutcracker! It could usefully reclaim the definite article because it is definitive; it also deserves the exclamation mark it has awarded itself.

Bourne confidently rewrites the ballet's muddled libretto, which does it a favour. Clara and Fritz are not the pampered offspring of the bourgeoisie, but foundlings locked in a Victorian orphanage. They inhabit a lavatorial dorm, polymorphously snuggling top-to-toe in a row of grim iron beds; their Christmas revels are conducted around a leafless carbonised tree in a tub, with a black star hung on it. The battle against the mice - which in Scarfe's production is a video game sprung to life - is here replaced by a revolution, as the children gang up on their funereal oppressors.

Their journey to Sweetieland is an exercise in wish-fulfilment fantasy, assisted by pyjama-clad cupids. But they find themselves in a region of adult delights, from which they remain puzzlingly excluded. The pink candied set for the second act is a realm of oral temptations, with a lewd unfurled tongue copied from the poster for a Rolling Stones tour. The dancers share marshmallows, ruminatively chewing and wiping each other's smeared lips. They even lick the sequinned walls, as if the ice prescribed by Tchaikovsky's scenario were icing on a cake. During the blizzard, they gulp snowflakes, like churchgoers snacking on communion wafers. The fancy footwork is left to look after itself: this is a ballet about mouths, not ankles.

Liquorice Allsorts perform all sorts of liquor-assisted tricks, Smarties do a break-dance in crash helmets, and a humbug acts up to his name by playing a bouncer who censoriously debars the children from a raunchy nightclub. Bourne's grandest invention is the Knickerbocker Glory, a dirty old man with the stickiest and most adhesive of fingers, who wears a cherry on his head atop a twirl of cream. He smokes throughout his routine, and seduces Clara with the help of his opiate fumes. I half expected him to stub out his cigarette in the cream, like those Hitchcock matriarchs who grind their phallic butts into the yolk of fried eggs. Perhaps wisely, Bourne spares us.

When the cupids shoot rosy-pronged arrows at Prince Bon-Bon and his ballerina, they react with an erotic anguish that is no longer innocent. At last they have discovered something better than cake! Back in the orphanage, the pining Clara reverts to infancy, exchanging the man-sized Nutcracker for a more manipulable doll, which has no private parts.

Then, in the final startling moments, she finds the Nutcracker sprawled in her bed, now made of naked flesh, not insentient wood. She grows up in a hurry. The Nutcracker, as Matthew Bourne understands, is about the difficult rites of pubic passage. Sugar is sex for the pre-pubescent, and Clara has graduated from oral to genital joys. Eat less, make love more: it sounds like a good New Year's resolution.

Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! is at Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (020 7863 8000) until 1 February, before embarking on a nationwide tour