National Theatre, Olivier – until 14 January 2023
Everyone’s got mental health issues in Hex: which is the Sleeping Beauty story extended to the troublesome folk-tale aftermath. The tousled Fairy has no wings and low status, while snobbish ones float gorgeously overhead in light-rippling 20ft robes.
It is panic over Princess Rose’s cradle, where the sleep-deprived mother is yelling neurotically, which makes Fairy hex the child into sleeping for decades after a thorn-prick at 16. She then loses her magic (delivered in spells sounding a bit Arabic) and has to fake it with cries of “sho lo lo” as she struggles to repair the damage. As for Rose she is a bratty teen and, after the waking, a discontented wife. She feels neglected by Prince Bert and worries – it turns out not unreasonably – that her ogress mother in-law will eat the children. Very Freudian, that. Bert himself is a mother’s boy and knows it. Only a chorus of yobbish thorns, a spiteful old retainer and a capering rat seem happy. Though the poor rat does get eaten. I liked him.
At least all the characters’ deep psychological problems fuel big numbers, solo arias with proper Nina Simone soul. Lisa Lambe as the Fairy stands out, her voice soaring from sweetness to wildness: a proper star. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as the ogress belts out her confusion and hunger with equal vigour and skill and some good sound-effects of cannibalistic gobbling: Jim Fortune’s music is not particularly memorable but it is atmospheric, and both women give it every chance.
Actually everything is poured in to give the show a chance: the NT’s artistic director Rufus Norris directs and co-devised it (the book is by his wife Tanya Ronder) and he throws the Olivier’s big resources at it, There’s Katrina Lindsay’s lovely design, a 12-strong orchestra, big ensemble, aerial fairies, trapdoors and talent and terrific sound and lighting. Norris also wrote the lyrics: but alas, he is not a natural lyricist and the rhymes plod along without much wit, sometimes almost with a sense of desperation. Just because “trampoline” rhymes with “sixteen” does not mean that the metaphor in question works.
So it remains more noisy than enchanting, and the children near me, well-mannered, were more interested than transported. The first half is a bit slow but then livens up with a decent dance routine and better jokes when Prince Bert appears, and the chorus of disappointed princes in the second half are properly funny, especially Kody Mortimer. Anyway, after the plot has creaked neatly round a lot of awkward corners, everyone gets over their issues, and decides that the moral is that they should honour their natural inward self. Nobody, in the end, is a real villain.
nationaltheatre.org.uk to 14 Jan