Sleeping Beauty, Barbican, London

Spinning a dark triumph
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The Independent Culture

The director Rufus Norris reinvents the (spinning-)wheel in his darkly enchanting adaptation of Sleeping Beauty, which began life a couple of years ago at the Young Vic and is now revived on the main stage of the Barbican. This version pushes beyond the confines of the familiar story. The climactic kiss that awakens the heroine occurs just before the interval. Considering what befalls her afterwards when married, Beauty could be forgiven for wishing that the Prince had left her unroused from her epic kip. For she's landed with the mother-in-law from hell, an ogress with an overpowering taste for human flesh and hungry designs on Beauty's babies.

The presiding spirit is Helena Lymbery's startling Goody, a twitchy, tattered fairy who has a red bog-brush of hair; little, skeletal excuses for wings; screwed-up syntax and, evidently having skipped fairy finishing school, a gross habit of letting off a fart every time she performs a bit of magic. Spells mean smells when she's around.

Norris has had the endearing notion of packaging together the characteristics of both traditionally contrasting fairies in this one chaotically conflicted figure. Narked at not being invited to the christening feast, she lays the classic curse on the baby (wanting to save it from a life with parents who break promises). Then, though, racked with compunction, she tries to save 16-year-old Beauty (Lyndsey Marshall) from the consequences, but the power of the original spell - beautifully dramatised in a sequence where the train of Beauty's new dress folds round her and drags her to the spindle where she loses her balance and pricks her finger - proves too inexorable.

The first half is told mostly in flashback, as Goody recollects the past for the succession of princes (all hilariously played by James Loye) who fetch up at the forbidding forest surrounding the castle. Its briars poke as nightmarishly gloved hands through the boards of Katrina Lindsay's superbly compact and sinisterly suggestive drum-revolve design. Most of these young royals are non-starters, such as the buck-toothed nerd who wants to "assess the level of her beauty" before venturing forth. Even the pint-sized hero proves to be a rosy-cheeked hearty chump much given to launching into preposterously macho morris dances, and is clueless about which bit of Beauty he's supposed to kiss.

Underscored by unaccompanied chants (sung by the cast) that sometimes sound a bit bare and musically uninspired, the production generates a macabre, witty atmosphere that's a perfect blend of the hand-over-mouth and the tongue-in-cheek.

The outstanding performance comes from Daniel Cerqueira as the ogress. In part, this fleshy gourmand is cannibalism's answer to the camp pantomime dame, and she does a wonderful line in blasé regal evasion (he "may have got lost in the mêlée" she casually declares of the grandson she think she has just devoured). But there's such a driven dignity in Cerqueira's portrayal that he brings an almost tragic dimension to the character. It's not so much La Cage aux Folles you recall when he cries "Do you think I have any choice? I am what I am", it's Shakespeare and the Greeks.

The production loses very little in shifting from an intimate in-the-round setting to large proscenium space. Highly recommended.

To 11 January (0845 120 7550)