‘Hex’ review – Sleeping Beauty musical is cursed, chaotic and childish

Hex might be the most cursed theatre production since Macbeth. Its initial run in 2021 was cut short by Covid before an official opening could take place, its National Theatre Live screening was cancelled with no plans to reschedule it, and the NT’s artistic director Rufus Norris and wife Tanya Ronder’s creative involvement has sparked accusations of nepotism. After all that, you have to wonder whether, at any point, they considered ditching plans to bring this mess of a musical back a year later.

It’s bad. Painfully so. The fact that the National would open up a production featuring twerking and gyrating to schools, and children as young as eight, is unconscionable. It feels more mature in its staging as a musical rather than a pantomime and the extent to which everything feels… off, yet the show’s expansion of the fairytale Sleeping Beauty, an over-reliance on fart noises and the lucid, psychedelic costumes from Katrina Lindsay would suggest the opposite. Hex is confused about who it is for and what it’s trying to say, and it’s easy for those watching to experience a similar sense of confusion.

Such is the nature of Ronder’s story about a wingless Fairy (Lisa Lambe) forced to bless a sleepless child (known as Rose in this production, and played by Rosie Graham), only to hex her instead, that everything feels ineffective and underwhelming. Any real source of antagonism in the narrative – say, in the form of an ogress named Queenie (Cinderella‘s Victoria Hamilton-Barritt) who loves to eat children – lacks a sense of danger when it can, and is, magicked away by Fairy. It’s a kind of ‘hex ex machina’, if you will, which means there’s little to keep us invested in the characters and their desires because there is nothing which really tests them. In fact, by the interval, you could happily leave – and you should – with all of the conflicts resolved, thanks to Fairy waving her fingers about and letting out an insufferable squeal every time she casts a spell.

This bleeds into the characters lacking anything which attracts us towards them or makes them in any way appealing. Fairy establishes herself at first as a whimsical, mythical creature with a strong sense of morality, after she is reluctant to wear ‘fake’ wings because it is “dishonest” and refuses to ‘bless’ Rose against her wishes. Yet it isn’t long before she decides to hack a bunch of animals to death with a cleaver to feed to Queenie (my thoughts are with the actor who has to degrade himself in such a fashion during every performance). Only at the very end of the musical do we see Fairy finally realise that her morals have been led astray in trying to right all of her wrongs, at which point it just looks like exposition tacked onto the conclusion to offer up some profound moral to the story. Throughout the show we’re given insights into Fairy’s own internal monologue as she reiterates what we have just learned. Helpful reinforcement for viewers under the age of eight, maybe, but one would like to think those beyond the show’s target audience are smart enough to understand what has unfolded in the scenes prior than rely on repetition which states the obvious and violates the classic ‘show, don’t tell’ rule (far too many moments in this musical see characters announce their exits and next actions when they could actually do what they say they’re going to do).

Speaking of patronisation, Princess Rose is a jittery woman with verbal diarrhoea who seems to take issue with the limitations placed on her by her controlling parents. Her coming into one’s own would be some powerful character development, if her royal parents didn’t disappear halfway into act one, never to be seen again. A shame, really, as we imagine Neïma Naouri’s stressy, dramatic Regina would probably faint at the news that her daughter’s new boyfriend, Prince Bert (Michael Elcock) is half human, half ogre. Equally frustrating is when Rose, having just learned her boyfriend’s mum got dangerously close to eating both of her children, decides to go after Bert and leave the two babies with a group of doting princes who are characteristically wimpy and go on to abandon the pair. She really should know better.

Meanwhile Bert, with the exception of some impressive choreography from Jade Hackett, is uninspiring as a love interest with a cliché masculinity problem, flexing away and furious with any other prince who may set eyes on Rose. All of these being great, heroic characters to present to a young impressionable audience, of course.

At least music from Jim Fortune is actually on the cusp of being thunderous and magnificent (not least in some of the ballads), before lyrics from director Norris completely undermine this, contorting and trying so hard to rhyme it’s like a child consulting a rhyming dictionary to make their GCSE poetry homework read better. At one point “drama queen” is rhymed with “trampoline” (yes, really), while another number titled simply Hello is a redundant musicalisation of Rose and Bert’s first conversation upon the former waking from her slumber. Somehow this is worthy of a reprise in the second act.

Many numbers are jarring and almost out-of-tune in their crescendos, screeching high notes and conclusions which feel incomplete with their final note. In The Middle is a standout number with its main melody, though that’s more because of a brilliant performance by Hamilton-Barritt. Her role as an ogress clearly desiring a family but denied this due to her hunger, and a few smart lighting designs from Paul Anderson, are the only two things I can cite as positives about such a chaotic production.

Perhaps pantomime would have worked better for Hex, where Fairy’s over-exposition to those watching could be brushed off as audience participation, and the hyperbole would feel far more natural. Though even panto’s pomp wouldn’t successfully mask the lacklustre plot at its centre. Like Sleeping Beauty herself, this musical should have been laid to rest – preferably without a prince (or artistic director) to bring it back to life.

Hex is now playing in the Olivier Theatre until 14 January 2023.

It will have captioned, relaxed, British Sign Language interpreted and audio described performances on 19, 22, 29 December and 7 January respectively.

Production Images: Johan Persson.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Hex’ in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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