The National Theatre's long-delayed fairytale musical 'Hex' has slumbered, much like the sleeping beauty it centres on, through various pandemic-related setbacks. Now, the curse has been broken: it’s finally opened on the Olivier's stage, a year after it was originally supposed to. But will Christmas audiences fall in love with this peculiar but fitfully charming show?
There's definitely a lot to like about its messed-up take on ‘Sleeping Beauty’, which supplements the bland original story of a snoozy princess with a gory new baby-eating ogre plot. When ‘Hex’ was announced, plenty of people got pissed off that NT artistic director (and director of the show) Rufus Norris had commissioned his wife Tanya Ronder to write the book: her plotting here isn't sure-footed enough to dispel any grim mutterings, but the zany directions she takes the story in are undeniably fun.
The action centres on Fairy, who's less bad, more stroppy and misguided. She hexes princess Rose in a moment of frustration with her sleep-deprived mother, then regrets it bitterly. Lisa Lambe is appropriately adorable in this central role, her sweet but complex voice soaring in composer Jim Fortune's gorgeous number 'The One' as she pours out her desire to be loved.
Fairy loyally stays by Rose's side during her century of slumber, trying to find a prince to wake her with a kiss. Meanwhile, a cast of Cockney thorns rampage about singing entertainingly boisterous ska number ‘Good Morning’, and pricking any prince who tries to get past them. Eventually, Fairy persuades a guy who's half ogre (and hence immune to the thorns) to administer the medicinal snog, and the happy couple have twins... but when they visit his baby-eating ogre mother (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt) it's a recipe for disaster.
It's a fiddly plot and sometimes it's hard to keep caring about its many characters through the various twists when their actions often don't make sense. Princess Rose (Rosie Graham), who all this stuff theoretically centres on, feels like an oddly marginal character, her feelings left a blur.
Fortune's songs are at their best when he has a bit of fun with them, like the goofy ‘Hello’, a love song for Rose and her prince Bert (Michael Elcock) that points to the weirdness of their love-at-first-sight romance. But the more ballady numbers don't always soar, especially because Norris's lyrics don't supply much emotional complexity. Reluctant ogre Queenie’s ‘I Know What I Am’ is strikingly similar in intention to ‘I Am What I Am’ from ‘Le Cage Aux Folles’, but it doesn't nail the deep weirdness of a baby-eating ogre singing a ballad of self-love and empowerment.
Still, ‘Hex’ feels like a treat to watch for the consistent invention that's gone into every element of Norris's lavish production. I loved Jade Hackett’s punchy, goofy choreography, particularly in the unsuccessful princes' catchy number ‘Mine is the Kiss’, where they stage a chaotic gymnastics show to win over the princess. And Katrina Lindsay’s design work is exceptional, full of truly magical flourishes like the miniature castle that turns into a rosy bower for the pricked princess, or the fairies' arrival in a vision of billowing pastel-tinted silk.
‘Sleeping Beauty’ is a love story. ‘Hex’ hasn't quite decided what it is. It's got a lot of stuff in it about the difficulties of motherhood, without having anything coherent to say about them. It's kind of about self-discovery, but again, there's not really the sense that Fairy goes on much of a journey. Instead, this is an elaborate gingerbread castle of a show that's built on candyfloss-light foundations: lovely to look at, undeniably impressive, but doomed to collapse under the weight of its own overweening ambition.