Hex review – musical Sleeping Beauty casts a darkly dazzling spell

Olivier theatre, London
No theatrical effect is spared in this emotional show, which returns to Charles Perrault’s grisly and grief-ridden fairytale for inspiration

This musical twist on Sleeping Beauty has been in repose for the past year after its first run was hit by Covid. It rouses now having shed most of its original leads, including Rosalie Craig. Now Lisa Lambe plays the lugubrious Fairy with bedhead who resembles a goblin from European folklore and is this story’s centre.

With an original concept by Katrina Lindsay and Rufus Norris (and directed by the latter while Lindsay designs set and costumes), the show looks over-produced at first and desperate to dazzle us. No effect is spared, from dry ice and aerial work to ostrich feathers. Characters have a touch of pantomime but also music hall, commedia dell’arte and Molière. There is Disney-style bling too, and Paul Anderson’s lighting design, with its earthquake of colour, looks in danger of sparking its own mini energy crisis.

Although the singing voices are universally strong, the songs come too thick and fast: big, instantly forgettable ballads (music by Jim Fortune, lyrics by Norris) that sound like a soup of Celtic laments. But the show stops tottering and begins to take glorious flight towards the end of the first half. Jade Hackett’s choreography and Lindsay’s set glow with dark imagination. The ensemble of bumbling Prince Charmings bring amusing physical comedy and some songs spark, such as the witty Hello when Rose (Rosie Graham) meets her prince, Bert (Michael Elcock).

The horror of new parenthood … Rosie Graham as Princess Rose, centre.
The horror of new parenthood … Rosie Graham as Princess Rose, centre. Photograph: Johan Persson

Tanya Ronder’s book yields sharp humour and strong female parts. The ogress is one of them, played by Victoria Hamilton-Barritt who was the best thing in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella. In Hex she is almost matched by Graham and Elcock as the couple for whom new parenthood brings genuine horror.

Charles Perrault’s grisly, grief-ridden version of the tale is this production’s source: child-rearing and the darker side of postpartum motherhood are dealt with head-on. There are vulnerable, failed or monstrous mothers but they are drawn in a way that allows us to empathise, and allows them the space for transformation. It is complicated subject matter for a family show, yet it works and creates a well of emotional depth.

A fabulous musical then, just a shame about the music. But there is so much originality, quirkiness and creative magic here that it puts us under its spell.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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