‘We put Disney in the bin’: Victoria Hamilton-Barritt on being theatre’s top Christmas villain | Musicals

In May the news that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella would close early came as a shock, not least to its cast and crew who were either told at short notice or found out online. Amid the outrage on social media was a pragmatic tweet from Victoria Hamilton-Barritt who, as the uproariously acerbic Stepmother, earned the show’s only Olivier award nomination. Her messagewith surfer emoji, said she’d be ready for other jobs the day after the curtain came down.

“Little did I know, by the end of the year I’d be working with Rufus Norris at the National,” she beams. Her audition for the fairytale Hex came in during her final weeks: “I jumped on it!” She was one of Cinderella’s principals, who originated her role and was staying on for another year. Was she told in person about its sudden closure? “I wasn’t, no,” she says, the hurt clear to hear. “A lot of us found out in a weird way. As much as I can feel sorry for myself, I can feel sorry for other people who had to call those decisions because it was like a pressure cooker.” Cinderella had been halted for Christmas, at great cost, amid rising Covid cases. Leaving the show was sad, she says, “but a bit of a relief”.

We meet on her lunch break after fittings for her outfit as Hex’s ogress Queenie. “The costume is so heavy – there’s a lot of layers to ogres! I’ve got many bums – like, five bottoms, under that dress.” The story is an “incredibly dark and twisted” but also humorous retelling of Sleeping Beauty. “It’s taken Disney and put it in the bin and gone back to the original tales.”

‘I’ve got five bottoms under that dress’ … the National Theatre’s new musical Hex, with Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Queenie (right). Photograph: –

When the musical was first announced there were claims of nepotism as Norris, the National’s boss and Hex’s lyricist and director, is married to its book writer, Tanya Ronder. (The music is by Jim Fortune.) Hex then had a cursed run last Christmas as theaters grappled with Omicron. Illnesses meant almost every performance in its first week had different combinations of understudies and stand-ins. Press night was postponed twice, then scrapped.

“They didn’t get closure on Hex last time,” says Hamilton-Barritt, whose role was first played by Tamsin Carroll. Norris and Ronder have been planning the show since the 90s, she says: “It must be a really emotional thing for them.” What’s it like to work with lead creatives who are married? “It saves a lot of time as they’re on the same page, they know each other so well,” she says. “My husband [Rory Svensson] writes and we collaborate. I look at Tanya and Rufus and think: my gosh, maybe one day we’ll be putting on our own show.”

Hamilton-Barritt's wicked stepmother (right), with Carrie Hope Fletcher in Cinderella in 2021.
‘Of course I’m the creep of the show’… Hamilton-Barritt’s wicked stepmother (right), with Carrie Hope Fletcher in Cinderella in 2021. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

One of Queenie’s songs, the beautifully tender duet In the Middle, was released last year. What’s happening in the story at that point, I ask. Queenie has given birth and gone to Fairy for a spell to stop her urges, Hamilton-Barritt explains. Urges? “She wants to eat her child who is half-human.” Er, OK… “Queenie’s not a bad person,” she insists. “She’s an ogre. It would be fighting against nature if she weren’t to eat the odd person once in a while. What else are they supposed to eat – chicken?” She cackles. Hex rehearsals have clearly been merry: “I come into work every day and feel respected, listened to and just safe. You’re not always gifted with that kind of energy.”

Her childhood Christmas theater trips were to ballet, not panto. “I was a dancer – that’s where it started.” Ballet school gave her “a direction and a work ethic” but she always knew she wanted to act. Matthew Bourne, whose own Sleeping Beauty returns this Christmas, was an inspiration: “anything he touches is golden”.

She has starred in a streak of musicals – Fame, Flashdance, Grease, A Chorus Line and then Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, until she was eight months pregnant “and started seeing stars on stage”. Playing salon owner Daniela while visibly pregnant enriched the character – “there’s more at stake for her” – but was exhausting. “I was doing an arabesque at the top of the stairs on a fire escape while they’re spinning it around.” She cried happy tears every night. “Your brain can take a bit of a battering in this industry – you have horrible things said about you, even at stage door. That show was good for my soul.”

'Good for my soul' … a pregnant Hamilton-Barritt with Sarah Naudi in In the Heights in 2015.
‘Good for my soul’ … a pregnant Hamilton-Barritt with Sarah Naudi in In the Heights in 2015. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

After an Olivier nomination for Murder Ballad in 2017 came workshops for Cinderella where the lugubrious laugh, withering smile and rasping disdain of the Stepmother emerged. She can’t believe how much liberty she was given. “People will ask, ‘How was it, learning how to do that?’ I’m like: ‘I made that up, you wally!’”

She praises Lloyd Webber for giving her Sundays off Cinderella to spend with family. How does Hex’s Christmas schedule look? “On the 23rd we have a morning. Very civilised. Then back in for an evening show on the 26th. New Year’s Day off – which means we can have a tipple.” Her children will be coming and she’s filming videos showing her transition into character so they’re not taken aback. “I said: ‘Of course, your mum’s the creep of the show – I come in and wreck it.’ But they’re used to me playing the creeps.”

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