Its press night postponed twice and three weeks of performances cancelled due to Covid cases in the company, the National Theatre's new musical Hex seems to have fallen victim to the condition evoked by its title. Rufus Norris implied as much when he took to the stage before Wednesday night's performance, warmly welcoming the slightly sparse but nonetheless eager audience to a show he described as "particularly hard hit" over the previous weeks. The good news is that, all being well, Hex is now up and running again until 22 Jan.
As it turns out, the show that Norris (direction and lyrics), Tanya Ronder (book), Jim Fortune (music) and team have fashioned is a confounding mix of the enchanting and the inept. With a premise pitched somewhere between Into the Woods, Wicked and Tangled, Hex continues in the revisionist fairy tale mode, filtering the story of Sleeping Beauty through the perspective of the fairy who cursed her.
A stunningly beautiful opening sequence introducing us to that lonely "Fairy in the wood" (played by Rosalie Craig as a part-melancholy, part-mischievous vision in tattered white tulle) promises much but the show only intermittently recaptures the spirit of that blissful opening, notwithstanding the sustained exuberance of Katrina Lindsay's design and the dynamism of Paul Anderson's lighting which create some memorable stage pictures throughout.
A problem lies in Ronder's book which is patchy, to say the least. Lacking a strong dramatic centre, the show struggles to hold the characters in balance and the timeline is so confused in some stretches that it can be tricky to tell whether days or decades are meant to have passed. The ending is satisfying in terms of bringing the characters together but the themes don't quite emerge - at least not on a first encounter. In addition, Norris too often falls back on some of his bad habits of staging (familiar from his wonder.land and The Threepenny Opera productions, among others), with the cast facing out too much or scampering up and down wheeled-on ladders.
While the carryings-on of an ensemble of poncy princes and Prince-pricking thorns feel like forced fun, the show is at its strongest when at its darkest and most emotional. These are also the moments in which Fortune's score is at its most exciting and expressive, pushing beyond pop/rock parameters into more unpredictable, quasi-classical terrain. The independence anthem "Sixteen" delivered by Kat Ronney's Sleeping Beauty incarnation Rose feels too calculated and generic a belter, but the material written for the show's other women is much more arresting.
While there's little Light Princess finesse to these proceedings, Rosalie Craig gives another thrilling performance full of swift wit, surprise and soulfulness. She's matched by an astonishing Tamsin Carroll as the devouring ogre-momma Queenie, who is disturbed by, then hellbent on satisfying, her cannibalistic appetites. At first it feels retrograde that the show, like wonder.land before it, falls back on making a female character the antagonist. But Carroll brings so much power to the part that she gives the character mythic stature and a tragic dimension that blows the crummier elements of the conception away. Hex doesn't quite work as it stands, but I'm glad to have seen it: it has scattered moments of magic and daring, and two performances that are for sure the production's blessings.
Hex is in the Olivier at the National Theatre until 22 January.