Hex seemed to be under a curse himself last Christmas when Covid-related illness among the cast severely disrupted the first week of preview performances, then halted production altogether before opening night.
He’s also been dogged by charges of nepotism: Tanya Ronder, who wrote the book, is married to Rufus Norris, the National’s artistic director who wrote the lyrics and also directs. In fact, Hex is a reworked musical version of Sleeping Beauty Norris staged at the Young Vic in 2002 and plays, largely triumphantly, to his somewhat underutilized strengths as a director during his tenure at the National: namely a spectacular and very theatrical narration that feeds on the strange mixture between the magical and the macabre.
Ronder’s pleasantly irreverent book is mostly inspired by a 17th century incarnation of the Sleeping Beauty mythos, which contains a not-so-happily ever after part 2 about Beauty’s new stepmother, Queenie, literally an ogress. greedy for human meat who considers it. newborn grandchildren as a way to satiate his jealous revenge against his unwanted new stepdaughter (Rosie Graham). It also draws inspiration from the West End musical Wicked, in its very 21st-century determination to expose the ambiguity within these villain-like characters: the evil fairy of Disney lore is here recast as a clumsy, punky misfit. and insecure (Lisa Lambe, Simply Terrific) with hair like an exploding pillowcase, who in a fit of anger curses the newborn princess in the part of history known to millions , and spends the next few years desperately trying to fix his mistake.
Norris’ production also seems determined at all costs to entertain: the set pieces follow each other with relentless regularity and the energy never wanes, at least on stage: I admit that I sometimes felt mine starting to lower. But if the story feels like a bag of colored strands at times rather than a fully worked-out idea (although I particularly liked the detail of newborn Beauty’s mother as a shaken, sleep-deprived narcissist), Norris and designer Katrina Lindsay have created a wondrous fairyland on the Olivier stage that captures attention even when the action begins to wander.
Spindles atop wobbly legs lace up the scene while branches hang in the air like surreal dreams, like the Forest of Arden designed by Salvador Dali. Three superior fairies who dislike getting their hands dirty in human affairs sometimes descend from the sky, their robes glistening like water. There’s a formidable pack of rogue “thorns”, who cheerfully lull the troop of princely duffers trying to approach Sleeping Beauty, and look like the deck of cards from Alice in Wonderland. Etiolated servants belonging to Queenie writhe around the stage like souls in purgatory. There’s an all-knowing old man who sits at the spinning wheel like a character straight out of the Brothers Grimm.
Amidst it all, the emotional heart of the story can feel crowded out at times, with the exceptional exception of Queenie (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt) who nods, surely deliberately, to the witch in Into the Woods. Sondheim: a deeply complicated, misunderstood film and desperately single mother. In a jaunty Jim Fortune score that sometimes feels like everything but the kitchen sink, it has the most haunting chorus of the evening, and a magnificent Hamilton-Barritt squeezes the last straw out of it. she can.
Rather, Hex has too much light and not enough shadow – even the most brilliantly gruesome scene, featuring Queenie gobbling up her grandchildren, is tempered by our knowledge that in fact she was tricked into eating a goat and a bear.
Yet it’s also often glorious, even if it reminds us perhaps once too often that it’s better to be yourself rather than a hero or villain in a fairy tale.
Until January 14. Tickets: 020 7452 3000; nationaltheatre.org.uk