”Hex” review – National Theatre’s musical is a festive fairytale with a few flaws

Michael Elcock and the cast of Hex
Michael Elcock and the cast of Hex
© Johan Persson

It’s taken a year for the National Theatre’s new Christmas show to get from previews to an official opening night – and at one point it seemed as cursed as its title.

Covid felled the cast when director Rufus Norris, also artistic director of the National itself, tried to get it up and running and in the end, he gave up. The fact that the book to this retelling of The Sleeping Beauty was written by his wife Tanya Ronder added both expectation and dark mutterings of nepotism.

In the end, after all the fuss, the show is perfectly lovely. An absolutely enjoyable night out if not quite the triumph of some of Norris’s earlier Christmas endeavours including the much-mourned (in my case) Tintin in Tibet.

Its problems arise from the fact that it deliberately tries to complicate the familiar story, centring it on a fairy called Fairy and played with endearing punky panache by Lisa Lambe, who is too fond of interfering in human affairs, trying to win love by helping people out.

While her sisters, the High Fairies, float serenely above the action, offering the occasional shimmering ‘bless’, Fairy stomps around down below, losing her magical powers when she accidentally hexes princess Rose, whose sleep-deprived mother begs Fairy to put her to sleep. The rest of the plot revolves around Fairy’s attempts to fix her mistake, not helped by a chorus of wicked Thorns who keep pricking princes to death, and the successful prince’s mother, Queenie, who is an ogre who wants to eat babies. As in Wicked, the baddies have some of the best tunes and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s vengeful, tormented mother all but steals the show.

In the midst of it all are the themes of good mothers, and the need to find who you really are, which complicate both the lyrics (witty and effective, from Norris himself) and the plot. There’s a sense of the show striving to produce a moral it can never quite achieve, propelled along the wave of Jim Fortune’s songs which are well-crafted and jolly (there’s a particularly enjoyable Madness-tinged tune for the Thorns).

But there are wonderful things to enjoy on the way. The designer Katrina Lindsay, credited as co-creator of the original concept, provides designs of spell-binding magic, balancing the stark reality of the everyday in a forest of metal structures, with the gorgeousness of floating fairies in billowing gowns and princes with bright yellow wigs. Queenie’s castle is like something out of Grimm, with a mechanical table and a chorus of spectral retainers whose long sleeves enable them to hide babies.

Paul Anderson’s evocative lighting makes scallops on the fairies skirts, and creates shadows amidst the sparkle. Jade Hackett’s terrific choreography keeps a large cast on its toes, creating routines that make amusing use of the Olivier’s revolve.

Rose floats, sleeping, in a fairy-tale Disney castle; when she gets down to earth she is an adventurous and resourceful princess with trousers under her pink dress, made by Rosie Graham into a rounded, prickly character not a story-book sinecure. Her awakening by Prince Bert – “Hello” – is the most delicate and clever song of the night, funny and romantic in the same breath. The presence of Michael Elcock’s Bert, in fact, enlivens every scene he is in; he has an energy and charisma that the show needs. His interactions with the chorus of loser princes are a particular pleasure; his desperate attempts to balance his love for his child-eating mother and his new bride are a very human joy.

It’s that humanity the show needs. It’s full of effects and enchantment, but it is only when Bert and Rose are kept firmly in view that it truly finds the extra level it seeks.

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Closed: 14 January 2023