More noisy than enchanting… and not a villain in sight: LIBBY PURVES reviews Hex

Hex (Olivier, National Theatre, London)

Verdict: Could use a bit more magic

Rating: *** 

The Wind In The Wilton’s (Wilton’s Music Hall, London)

Verdict: Festive fun, down by the Thames

Rating: **** 

Everyone’s got mental health issues in Hex, which is the Sleeping Beauty story extended to the troublesome folk-tale aftermath, for the National Theatre’s big Christmas offering.

The tousled Fairy has no wings and low status, while her snobbish sisters float 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.

Everyone’s got mental health issues in Hex, which is the Sleeping Beauty story extended to the troublesome folk-tale aftermath

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 mummy’s boy.

Only a chorus of yobbish thorns, a spiteful old retainer and a capering rat seem happy. Though the rat does get eaten.

At least all these psychological problems fuel big numbers, with proper Nina Simone soul.

Lisa Lambe as the Fairy (pictured above) 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.

Jim Fortune’s music is not particularly memorable, but it is atmospheric, and both women give it every chance.

Actually, everyone does: the NT’s artistic director Rufus Norris directs and co-devised the show (the book is by his wife Tanya Ronder), and throws the Olivier’s big resources at it,

There’s Katrina Lindsay’s lovely design, a 12-strong orchestra, a big ensemble, aerial fairies, trapdoors, and terrific sound and lighting.

Norris also wrote the lyrics. Alas, he is not a natural lyricist and the rhymes plod along without much wit, sometimes almost with a sense of desperation.

So Hex remains more noisy than enchanting, and the children near me were more interested than transported.

It livens up with a decent dance routine and better jokes when Prince Bert appears, and the chorus of disappointed princes are properly funny — especially Kody Mortimer.

After the plot has creaked neatly round a lot of corners, everyone gets over their issues and decides to honour their natural self. Nobody’s a real villain.

On a smaller, jollier scale, down at Wilton’s Music Hall, there’s no doubt about the villainy of the weasels in the Wild Wood of the City.

The Wind In The Willows is updated by Piers Torday to modern London’s Thames. Mole’s evicted to make way for a road and Ratty picnics on the river on a recycled pallet-raft, tidying the environment by eating leftover Pret sandwiches and bits of kebab. 

The Wind In The Willows is updated by Piers Torday to modern London’s Thames

Badger is a magnificent old campaigner, covered in protest badges, and Darrell Brockis’s Toad is an irresistibly hammy, old-style actor — with, of course, an e-scooter (poop poop!).

But there’s still the romance of the magical god Pan, a rescued baby otter; and folky music from the cast playing bass, fiddle, guitar and clarinet. A happy show for all ages.

Is Clive’s goose cooked? Oh no it isn’t…

Mother Goose (Hackney Empire, London)

Rating: *** 

Sleeping Beauty (Marlow Theatre, Canterbury)

Rating: ****

Jack And The Beanstalk (Lyric Hammersmith, London)

Rating: **** 

Everybody loves a dame — particularly if that dame is played by Clive Rowe. The big man dons frocks and false bosoms again to play Mother Goose at the Hackney Empire in a production that celebrates the theatre’s 120-year history.

In Will Brenton’s script, our heroine runs a beauty parlour but, good-hearted to a fault, refuses to accept payment, putting her in debt to landlord Squire Purchase (Tony Marshall). Then along comes the Demon Queen (Rebecca Parker), who wants to tempt Mother Goose to the dark side, when her BFF (Best Feathered Friend) Priscilla starts laying golden eggs; she offers her eternal beauty and fame… in return for her magical goose.

Everybody loves a dame — particularly if that dame is played by Clive Rowe. The big man dons frocks and false bosoms again to play Mother Goose at the Hackney Empire

Narratively, this is a curate’s egg rather than a golden one, as Mr Rowe (who also directs) crams in elements of traditional panto and musical theatre, plus a convoluted morality tale. But he is as fabulous as ever; and Kat B, another Empire favourite, gives great support as Mother’s son Billy Goose.

Sleeping Beauty at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury is a traditional panto, touched with West End stardust and yet with a real connection to the local audience.

Strictly Come Dancing winner Ore Oduba is Prince Michael, and Carrie Hope Fletcher makes an engaging panto debut as the baddie ‘Carrie-bosse’, and in-jokes abound in Paul Hendy’s terrific script.

Sleeping Beauty at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury is a traditional panto, touched with West End stardust

Stealing every scene he’s in is local favourite Ben Roddy as Nurse Nellie, while more comedy is provided by Max Fulham as Jangles (with his monkey puppet Gordon) and Jennie Dale’s instantly likeable Fairy Moonbeam.

If you prefer your panto with a side order of social conscience, then Jack And The Beanstalk at Lyric Hammersmith should satisfy. The evil giant is unfairly taxing the locals (boo, hiss); while Mrs Woolley, the Sheep, is (the programme notes tell us) made entirely of recycled materials.

It’s a virtuous tale all round, as Jack (Leah St Luce) wants to take the glory of cutting the giant down to size and then steal the golden riches in his lair, but his moral compass is provided by best friend Jill (Maddison Bulleyment).

If you prefer your panto with a side order of social conscience, then Jack And The Beanstalk at Lyric Hammersmith should satisfy

There are lots of good lines in Jude Christian and Sonia Jalaly’s sparkling script, and while the show is more song-and-dance than traditional panto, Nicholai La Barrie’s production is no less enjoyable for that.

Mother Goose runs until December 31 (hackneyempire.co.uk); Sleeping Beauty until January 8 (marlowetheatre.com) and Jack And The Beanstalk until January 7 (lyric.co.uk).

VERONICA LEE

 
We’re back at school… hooray!

Nativity! The Musical (Birmingham Rep)  

Verdict: Class favourite

Rating: ****

Debbie Isitt’s 2009 film Nativity! — and its sequels — are based on her fond memories of appearing in school nativity plays as a child growing up in Coventry. She adapted the movie for the stage in 2017, and now this spirited musical revival, which she directs, lands at Birmingham Rep — and it’s a delight.

Mrs Bevan (Jemma Churchill), headteacher of the failing St Bernadette’s primary school, tasks Mr Maddens (Billy Roberts) with staging their Christmas play. But he’s lovesick for his ex, Jennifer, who moved to Los Angeles five years before; while his rival from Oakmoor, the posh prep school nearby, is his former friend Mr Shakespeare (Matthew Rowland, relishing the ‘baddie’ role).

To top it all, he’s been landed with the eager but annoying classroom assistant — Mr Poppy — to ‘help’.

Debbie Isitt’s 2009 film Nativity! are based on her fond memories of appearing in school nativity plays as a child growing up in Coventry. She adapted the movie for the stage in 2017, and now this spirited musical revival, which she directs, lands at Birmingham Rep

Determined to outdo Mr Shakespeare, Mr Maddens tells a white lie about ‘an LA producer’ — Jennifer (Daisy Steere) — coming to see the show . . . and it snowballs.

Mr Poppy (the amiable Ben Lancaster) devises a spectacle worthy of Hollywood, while the local mayor gifts the use of the ruins of Coventry Cathedral — nicely realised in David Woodhead’s colourful design.

The witty script (with some topical gags thrown in) takes the audience on an emotional journey, and Debbie Isitt’s songs (co-composed with Nicky Ager) keep things bouncing along nicely, as we reach the fantastic show-within-a-show finale, when the lovers are reunited.

The children, so integral to the production, are bursting with talent — and even cuter than Mr Madden’s dog. 

Until January 7 (birmingham-rep.co.uk).

V.L.

Here’s one Christmas strike you might actually enjoy

By Georgina Brown

Newsies (Troubadour Theatre, Wembley Park, London)

Verdict: Extra! Extra! Read all about it

Rating: ****

The Nutcracker (Bristol Old Vic) 

Verdict: Dark magic

Rating: **** 

Newsies began life 30 years ago as a Disney movie, starring Christian Bale, which flopped before bouncing back as a cult favourite.

Reborn as a musical in 2012 on Broadway, it dazzled and won awards. And it’s doing it all over again, over here, having finally found the space it needs in Wembley’s whopping Troubadour Theatre.

Oliver! meets The Front Page (with a bit of Annie and Les Mis thrown in) in Harvey Fierstein’s take on the ‘true’ story of the newsies’ strike in 1899.

Led by the charismatic Jake Kelly (mighty Michael Ahomka-Lindsay), the efforts of a rabble of dirt-poor street urchin newspaper vendors to take on a sleek and greedy print mogul become something to sing and dance about, if in a somewhat formulaic fashion. The plot is predictable, the characters sketchy — but the dynamism proves irresistible.

Jake is championed by Crutchie (Matthew Duckett), lame in nature and name but super-powered in spirit, as well as a couple of fearless liberal-minded women: Moya Angela’s show-stopping madam Medda; and Bronté Barbé’s sweet-voiced reporter Katherine.

Newsies began life 30 years ago as a Disney movie, starring Christian Bale, which flopped before bouncing back as a cult favourite. Reborn as a musical in 2012 on Broadway, it dazzled and won awards

Director and choreographer Matt Cole uses the space superbly, with the audience on three sides of the stage.

An astonishing ensemble of acrobatic, balletic, cartwheeling, backflipping, spring-loaded newsies — boys and a few girls, their faces aglow with defiance and determination — thunder up and down gangways, tap-dance on tiny tables and swing and swirl on industrial lamps in the printing works.

Ahomka-Lindsay’s longing for peace away from the mean streets of Manhattan flows in the dreamy sax number Santa Fe, but too many of Alan Menken’s songs sound samey, and the Disney-style Nu-Yoick accents and dismal diction make Jake Feldman’s lyrics hard to decipher. 

I caught Now Is The Time To Seize The Day, One For All And All For One and Now I Have Something To Believe In. But subtler stuff was drowned by the blasting volumes.

Never mind. This stunning, winning dance show has its great big heart — as well as its fabulous feet — in all the right places.

As does The Nutcracker, Tom Morris’s sign off at the end of 12 remarkable years at the artistic helm of Bristol Old Vic. His musical retelling has his hallmarks all over it: wholesome lessons about empathy wrapped up in bold, joyous theatricality.

The Nutcracker, Tom Morris’s sign off at the end of 12 remarkable years at the artistic helm of Bristol Old Vic

It’s Christmas Eve. No one notices when an eccentric clock-mender (beguiling Tristan Sturrock) arrives bearing gifts and spinning fabulous notions — in song — about the wheels of time being ‘the music of everything’ and the cogs of your mind ‘dancing the day into night’.

He gives dreamy Claire (Mae Munuo) a nutcracker doll. When trying to put him at the top of the Christmas tree, Claire falls and hits her head. The rest is the stuff of her dreams . . . and nightmares.

Rejected toys are reborn as a rock band. Queen Mouse (Gwyneth Herbert, also composer and lyricist) and her seven-headed mouse-child are sharpening their gnashers. As Nutcracker, Denzel Baidoo’s beautiful slow-mo breakdancing bewit-ches an entranced Curly Pearly (Guy Hughes) into becoming a star saxophonist. It matters not a jot that the narrative baffles in Lee Lyford’s pacey production. That’s dream logic for you. And the transporting power of theatre, Morris-style.

It’s Henry V – with a touch of Hamlet

Henry V (Wanamaker Theatre, London)

Verdict: A crowning achievement

Rating: ****  

Once more unto the breach, dear friends. Except this is not Shakespeare’s Henry V as the gloriously patriotic, triumphalist rallying cry we have come to know and love from Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film and William Walton’s stirring score (delivered on Churchill’s orders as a WWII morale-booster).

Instead, dramaturg Cordelia Lynn has cut the chorus that coats the play in a nationalistic gloss and reinstated Henry’s chilling threat to the citizens of Harfleur to unleash his troops to rape and pillage, and kill all prisoners taken at Agincourt.

Underscored by plaintive strings, the result is a sombre portrayal of the tragedies as well as the triumphs of war, its victims and its victors.

Henry V: Dramaturg Cordelia Lynn has reinstated Henry’s chilling threat to the citizens of Harfleur to unleash his troops to rape and pillage, and kill all prisoners taken at Agincourt

Above all, it emerges as a timeless study of kingship. And as the new monarch is welcomed with a burst of ‘God save our gracious King’, something we are all still adjusting to, this play seems all the more relevant.

Oliver Johnstone’s impressive Henry is no glamorised, flashy figurehead. His ‘unto the breach’ speech which galvanised the squaddies in the movie, is here a soliloquy in which a fearful young man, racked with Hamlet-like self-doubt, prays aloud that he will show ‘the mettle of your pasture, let us swear that you are worth your breeding’.

There’s an impressive economy and focus in Holly Race Roughan’s pared-down, prop-less production.

Dozens of characters — indeed all but the king — are played by a cast of nine, in play-clothes and on a bare stage, as if in a rehearsal room, backed by green ruched curtains.

A programme states that the design interrogates ‘narratives of English national identity and the climate of empire’. It doesn’t. Mercifully the awful curtains rise to reveal a wall of blurry old mirrors, all the lovelier for the reflected candlelight. A potent alternative to theatrical tinsel.

GEORGINA BROWN

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