Review by Daz Gale
We have seen new takes on classic fairytales on both stage and screen over the last few years. The newly retitled Bad Cinderella offered a different take on the story we know and love, while Disney’s Maleficent movies aimed to put a new twist on Sleeping Beauty. That same fairytale is the subject for National Theatre’s brand new musical Hex which finally opened this week after a false start last year. But was this musical a thing of beauty or simply cursed?
Hex first opened at National Theatre last year but had its initial run interrupted, meaning it didn't open to reviews. Now finally ready to be seen by the public, this original retelling of Sleeping Beauty tells the story of a fairy whose spell to help the princess sleep becomes a curse, setting her on a mission for 100 years in a bid to make everything right.
The first thing to mention with Hex is its staging. The set design by Katrina Lindsay (who also designed the eccentric and immediately iconic costumes) is gorgeous. From the looming castle in the background to the spindles ominously hovering around the stage, it is instantly striking and reveals some nice surprises including a great use of the revolve. The lighting design by Paul Anderson makes the whole thing look as beautiful as the Princess in the story with a use of video design by Ash J Woodward elevating the whole thing to stunning levels.
The jewel in the crown of Hex is its dream cast. Lisa Lambe gives an absolutely scene-stealing turn as the Fairy tapping in to the extreme mannerisms the writing and direction dictates but somehow still managing to play it with heart and humour. As well as fantastic acting ability, she also has the most incredible voice which brings the house down when she gets to perform a big solo number.
Rosie Graham delights as Rose showing her versatility ss an actress as she plays a character both as a baby up until 116 years old (well, technically 16). Brash and commanding, she perfectly steps into the shoes of a character so widely known through various iterations. Michael Elcock also fares well as Bert – the Prince who rescues Rose. Though their scenes together are minimal compared to other characters, they display a beautiful chemistry.
One standout among the cast is Victoria Hamilton-Barritt who swaps one fairytale musical adaptation for another as she steps into the role of Queenie. Like her turn in Cinderella, she milks her part for all its worth, making the best out of a confusing character and making the whole thing feel almost cohesive as she chews the scenery (amongst other things). Her sensational vocals also get a chance to shine with the showstopping ‘I Know What I Am’. The supporting cast are all equally fantastic and ultimately a joy to watch.
From the sounds of this review so far, you might think it all seems rather pleasant. However, there are several major flaws that bring the whole thing crashing down to Earth in a brutal way.
The biggest flaw in Hex is that it is cursed with underwhelming writing. While there has been the slightest of improvements from its initial run last year, the whole thing feels very convoluted and unsatisfying in its exploration of the themes. Tonally, it is all over the place, never knowing quite who it wants to be aimed at. Toilet humour is mixed with swearwords so you’re left not knowing whether this is a fairytale for kids or adults with one particular scene in act two involving Queenie towing the line between funny and traumatic, bordering dangerously close to bad taste. Meanwhile, several characters are never fully fleshed out and various storylines along the way seem to fade in and out without a clear narrative tying them all together. The dialogue varies from some witty one liners to others that feel lacklustre and occasionally cringeworthy. It feels very much like a draft of a show rather than the finished piece.
The inconsistent and often poor writing extends to the songs. While the music by Jim Fortune is pleasant enough, it’s the lyrics by Rufus Norris that really lets the thing down with pedestrian and childish rhymes and far too much repetition littered throughout. The nonsensical ‘Hello’ is a number in desperate need of improvement while Fairy’s far too repetitive early solo ‘The One’ is completely one-note and not befitting of the talent performing it.
There are some pearls among the songs, however. Opening number ‘Nature of the Beast’ is a marked improvement on last year thanks to some inventive staging. The whole thing sets the bar incredibly high to begin with, but sets itself up to fail in doing so as it never manages to reach these dizzy heights again. ‘Mine Is The Kiss’ is a decent enough song as is act two opening number ‘One Of These Days’. The problem is the inconsistency of the musical numbers. Even when the music itself is of high quality, the lyrics always manage to let it down. This is a case where an additional lyricist would have paid off drastically.
These flaws truly let down Hex. It has so many good elements involved including the staging and a concept, that given a bit of work, could be a truly fantastic watch. It’s problem is it’s not quite there yet. Not fully fleshed out, not quite knowing who it is or what it wants to be. If it could be given this sense of identity and get an additional writer on board to improve what is by far the weakest part of the production, Hex really could prove to be something special.
Ultimately, beautiful staging and a fairytale cast aren’t enough to make up for the sleepy writing. It’s an admirable attempt to bring something new to a classic story although it never quite reaches the potential it has lurking somewhere inside. This means that, sadly, Hex never quite wakes up to have its happy ending. There is still plenty to enjoy in Hex that makes a trip to see it worthwhile. It also seems to be a show that has split opinion with many in the audience falling under its spell.
Hex plays at the Olivier Theatre until 14th January 2023. Tickets from https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/
Photos by Johan Persson