this chaotic Sleeping Beauty spin-off is cursed

(Johan Person)

Hex is cursed. This musical adaptation of Sleeping Beauty only played a handful of its scheduled performances last December due to Covid surges, and finally arrives at its official opening, a year later, as a sporadically charming but completely confused.

The first half of Tanya Ronder’s book seems desperate to sanitize the underlying horror and injustice of fairy tales, while the second immerses us in visions of flesh-eating infanticide. Jim Fortune’s score sometimes rises to Sondheim’s Complex Intelligence levels, but the landscape is more hummable.

And oh my, the words of Rufus Norris, who also runs the National and is married to Ronder. For every witty line, there’s a clunky rhyme hammered in to fit. The expression “I’m finally going to drag a fire”, to echo “one of these days”, particularly annoyed me. What is a what now? It’s opportunism, not sleight of hand. There are countless examples of words arranged or put together for convenience. Young protege Princess Rose (Rosie Graham) wishes she could build herself “a trampoline…so I can bounce…until the shining day…when I’m 16”.

Overall, although the individual segments are presented in style, it feels like Hex is invented as it goes. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Norris working on a show with Ronder, an established playwright, at the National for the first time since taking over in 2015 (they have already collaborated on several projects before). But I wonder if that didn’t make it harder for others inside the institution to show where this passion project was going wrong.

The infanticide scenes didn't thrill all audience members (Johan Persson)

The infanticide scenes didn’t thrill all audience members (Johan Persson)

Shunned by her arrogant and diaphanous peers, a “low” wingless fairy called (ho ho) Fairy unwittingly curses Princess Rose to fall asleep if stung. A thorn resembling RMT’s Mick Lynch also compels and anesthetizes any would-be royal liberators. There are no bad guys here: the thorns fulfill their biological function.

Decades later, Fairy helps the ogress Queenie overcome her desire to eat her half-human child, Prince Bert, and sets him up to wake Rose. Because ogres are immune to thorns. Of course they are.

The young couple immediately, temporarily in love, transform themselves during the interval into bickering parents: she angry at her mother’s fixation, he at his friendship with old suitors. The sight of baby grandchildren makes Queenie hungry, and, oops, Fairy has lost her powers in a way that’s not been fully explained.

During scenes of butchery and flying viscera, a child behind me started crying. The message, expressed in contradictory songs, is as unclear as the tone is uneven. Are we supposed to embrace our true nature or overcome it? To aspire or to be content with our lot? Fairy is very briefly leveled with her best before dropping back down to taunt her with surly ogres and humans.

Katrina Lindsay’s costumes and her decor, centered on a hovering Disney castle, please. The musicality and choreography are tight, especially in a slapstick fight routine involving Michael Elcock’s rubber band Bert.

Victoria Hamilton-Barritt is superb as the drawling, malevolent Queenie – part mantis, part padded ball – and Lisa Lambe unveils a voice that is both piercing and belting as the scruffy fairy. But Graham and Elcock don’t have much to work with, and most of the time the actors give off a sort of grimacing desperation to spend an evening that doesn’t even make sense in a fairy tale.

National Theater, until January 14; nationaltheatre.org.uk

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