‘Hex’ review – A cursed spin on Sleeping Beauty at the National Theatre

Suzy Evans
Suzy Evans

This is not your average Sleeping Beauty. Part avant-garde fairytale, part children’s bedtime nightmare, Hex continually pricks its finger on a thorn to get wilder and weirder with every passing moment.

The spin on the classic tale follows the traditional structure of a young princess who is cursed, or in this case “hexed,” to sleep when she pricks her finger on her 16th birthday until a prince comes to kiss her. But Rufus Norris and Katrina Lindsay’s creepy concept pivots the focal point to the Fairy, named just that here, who does the hexing, and explores the mysterious world surrounding the kingdom.

That Fairy, played with a folksy and ethereal quality by Lisa Lambe, is a “low fairy,” i.e. one without wings. She’s deeply insecure about what she lacks, longing for beauty and flight like her counterparts, who descend from the rafters as if floating like jelly fish in Lindsay’s enchanting set and costume design.

When the Queen’s secretary ventures into the forest searching for a fairy to produce a blessing for the new baby, he discovers Fairy and also an ogre hungry for humans. Fairy saves secretary Smith (Michael Matus) from becoming the creature’s dinner, and he, in turn, invites her to the palace to bless baby Rose.

However, when she arrives, her insecurities are brought to light, as the royals chastise her lack of wings and doubt her magical abilities, and in a moment of weakness, Fairy hexes the baby, cursing her to sleep at 16 as the story goes.

But a hex is essentially the opposite of a blessing, and when a fairy produces a hex, they immediately lose all magic. So now, not only is the princess cursed to sleep in a palace surrounded by enchanted thorns who put any approaching person to sleep, but Fairy feels powerless to undo the evil she has done.

Hex builds a chaotic imaginary world, and the immersive nature of this tragic, horrific universe spins throughout the musical. There were young children dressed in princess costumes peppered throughout the theatre, but this is not a show designed for kids.

The cast is universally excellent, with Rosie Graham taking Rose on the journey from bright-eyed naivete to sudden loss of innocence and Michael Elcock embodying his character’s moniker as the winning prince Bert.

The standout is undeniably Victoria Hamilton-Barritt who has been making a welcome habit of playing sympathetic fairytale villainesses. She’s traded her Evil Stepmother eyebrows (in her Olivier-nominated performance in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cinderella) for a different variety as an even more strange and dynamic creature Queenie. Without giving anything away, as her character is somewhat of a spoiler, Hamilton-Barritt takes the musical to alarming new heights in the second act as she, quite literally, chews up all the scenery in the most delicious fashion.

There are some gaps in Norris and Lindsay’s concept and moments when the show quickly pivots from comedy to tragedy and back again. While Jim Fortune’s music (with lyrics by Norris) creates a moody atmosphere, some of the songs struggle to propel the narrative and the lyrics are routinely rote. Tanya Ronder's book comes across as more of an amalgamation of short stories, each with a different objective, tied together by standalone songs.

For any fantasy and fairytale lovers, Hex is a welcome twist on the genre, giving us all permission to create worlds within our imaginations and find solace and sympathy in the most unexpected of places. There’s more to everyone than meets the eye, and embracing authenticity and individuality is the key to happiness.

Hex is running at the National Theatre until January 14. Book Hex tickets on London Theatre today.

Photo credit: Lisa Lambe (Fairy) and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt (Queenie) in Hex at the National Theatre. (Photo by Johan Persson)

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