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Hex a new musical based on Sleeping Beauty – National Theatre

When revisiting fairy tales – especially in musical format at Christmas – there is as much in the Western canon to address as there is to inspire. Indeed, the Sleeping Beauty story has its own broad classification in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Folktale Index (‘ATU’ for short – and something with which I personally became obsessed when I visited the hometown of the Brothers Grimm a few years ago) before different sub-variations within it are noted. Whether Tchaikovsky’s ballet or the two recent Maleficent Hollywood films, or indeed numerous panto re-tellings at any given Christmas; there are so many aspects of Sleeping Beauty that (please pardon the pun) prick the subconscious to make it a haunting but potentially uplifting tale.

Lisa Lambe (Fairy) in Hex at the National Theatre. Image credits - Johan Persson.
Lisa Lambe (Fairy) in Hex at the National Theatre. Image credits – Johan Persson.

Katrina Lindsay and Rufus Norris’ Hex is no exception. With resplendent production values, two truly exceptional singers (amongst many other fine voices) and a (mostly) light-hearted romp through the darkest of anxieties and archetypes, this re-telling is rich, engrossing and entertaining. With the comic zest of panto (but always behind the fourth wall) and the pathos of dramatic musical theatre, we are thrown into a world of moral compromise where the challenges of actually accepting ourselves and others become profoundly difficult.

Wingless, earth-based Fairy (Lisa Lambe) may not be as glamorous as her (stunningly rendered with lighting by Paul Anderson and video projections by Ash J Woodward) flying peers, but her heart is in the right place and she knows full well that her magic is for blessing rather than cursing. Charming in presence and brilliant of voice, Lambe is a joy to behold even though her character finds herself in a troubling dilemma which leads her, after a fit of pique, to lose her powers.

As with the classic construction of any fairy story (or panto), one moment of jeopardy leads to an even bigger mess before a happy interlude that precedes a dark dramatic reversal until everything turns out just fine and lessons are learned — ideally with a big song and dance number (in this case ‘The Nature of the Beast’ reprised with new realisations from the opening). Tanya Ronder’s book has some fun with the relatable frustrations of an exhausted new mother (who happens to be Queen Regina [Neima Naouri]) who can’t get her baby Rose (Rosie Graham), to sleep. Ronder’s script also goes into darker places with hints of post-partum depression and inability to bond with one’s own infants as told via Queenie’s secret and conflicts – played superlatively by Victoria Hamilton-Barritt.

Hamilton-Barritt and Lambe have outstanding voices and sell every song all the way to the rafters – both belting and nuanced. The rest of the ensemble is pleasing. We are treated to a deliciously awkward extended greeting sequenced, ‘Hello’, when Queenie’s son Prince Bert (Michael Elcock) awakens Rose for the first time. Elcock may not quite have the pipes of his onstage mother and fairy (who he thinks is his auntie) but he’s an exceptionally fun physical performer who does more than justice to Jade Hackett’s choreography and Bethan Clark’s fight work.

One of the original concept’s co-creators, set and costume designer Katrina Lindsay also deserves credit for some of the most magical aspects of this production. With a double revolve and sculptural spinning wheels, trapped-door roses and full-body thorn suits, her lush set and wardrobe design are both practical for the action and the basis for much of the audience’s enchantment. Her costume design has not shied away from a Freudian interpretation of the thorns or spindles’ roles in the fairy story. Jim Fortune’s music occasionally draws on a sort of ska-sounding menace that reminded me (gently) of the aesthetics of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange with her thorn-suit costumes in complement.

Hex is an ambitious undertaking. At moments, it perhaps over-reaches in its storytelling and tries to deconstruct and rebuild too much of the underlying tale along with so many centuries of its interpretation. Some of the bits of business with the would-be Princes Charming or the physical theatre turns of secondary characters add drag to the pace and perhaps should have been sacrificed for the good of focus and concision (despite their quality in their own right). Nonetheless, for something a little smarter and a little grander for Christmas – without finding yourself drawn too deeply into either the saccharine or the depressing – Hex is indeed a blessing.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

Deep in the wood, a lonely fairy longs for someone to bless.
When she is summoned to the palace to help the princess sleep, her dream turns into a nightmare and her blessing becomes a curse.

Soon, she is plunged into a frantic, hundred-year quest to somehow make everything right.

Rufus Norris directs this vividly original retelling of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fairy tale with music by Jim Fortune, book by Tanya Ronder, designs by Katrina Lindsay and choreography by Jade Hackett.

Zaynah Ahmed
Marc Akinfolarin
Christopher Akrill
Sabrina Aloueche
Michael Elcock – Bert
Ben Goffe
Rosie Graham – Princess Rose
Victoria Hamilton-Barritt – Queenie
Chris Jenkins
Kalisha Johnson
Lisa Lambe – Fairy
Amanda Lindgren
Michael Matus
Kody Mortimer
Neïma Naouri
Mark Oxtoby
Kate Parr
Aharon Rayner
Olivia Saunders
Sasha Shadid
Rumi Sutton
Riley Woodford

Production Team
Director Rufus Norris
Set and Costume Designer Katrina Lindsay
Choreographer Jade Hackett
Music Supervision & Vocal Arrangements Marc Tritschler
Orchestrations Simon Hale
Music Director Tarek Merchant
Lighting Designer Paul Anderson
Sound Designer Simon Baker
Video Designer Ash J Woodward
Casting Bryony Jarvis-Taylor
Consultant Choreographer Bill Deamer
Associate Director Séimí Campbell
Associate Choreographer Bradley Charles
Associate Music Director Cat Beveridge
Rehearsal Music Director Katy Richardson
Company Singing Coach Fiona McDougal
Company Voice Work Jeannette Nelson
Staff Director Charlie Kenber

a new musical based on Sleeping Beauty
book by Tanya Ronder, music by Jim Fortune and lyrics by Rufus Norris
original concept by Katrina Lindsay and Rufus Norris
Now playing to 14 January
Running Time: approx. 2 hours 30 mins incl. interval

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  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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