Friday, 20 October 2017

Theatre review: Hair

In what I doubt is the first time someone's got their genitals out for strangers under Waterloo Station, Hair has come to The Vaults, in a 50th anniversary production first seen last year in Manchester. Gerome Ragni, James Rado (book and lyrics) and Galt Macdermot's (music) hippie musical finds a natural home in these railway tunnels, and Maeve Black's design doesn't just fill the auditorium from floor to ceiling, it also extends out into the bar and surrounding areas, turning them into a chill-out zone complete with couches draped in ethnic throws and tents to have a lie-down in. Berger (Andy Coxon) is the sort-of leader of the Tribe, and sort-of narrator of the musical, which spends much of its first act introducing us to various members of the group of anti-war protesters. The focus gradually falls most onto Claude (Robert Metson,) Berger's best friend who's received his draft notice to fight in Vietnam.

Despite his politics being determinedly pacifist in general, when it comes to the specific case of his being asked to fight himself, the notions of patriotism he's been brought up with mean he can't dismiss it as easily as he expected.


There's a few other running themes through the show but this is as much of a storyline as there really is, Hair ssentially being as laid-back and loose as its stoned characters, until it starts to get darker near the end. As well as its famousFULL-FRONTAL MALE NUDITY ALERT!andSEVERE VADGE WARNING!Hair is best-known for four of its songs, starting with "Aquarius" - to be honest I imagine Abiola Efunshile was feeling under enough pressure to be understudying the role that opens the show, they didn't need to turn her mike off as well. Once the techincal problems got resolved there were strong renditions of the other hits, including "I Got Life," which I don't suppose the writers originally envisaged being used to advertise quite as many products as it has.


Laura Johnson is a highlight as Sheila, whose songs include "Good Morning Starshine," and Natalie Green also impresses vocally. Outside of the most famous numbers, "Colored Spade" is among the most memorable: Hud's (Jammy Kasongo) reclamation of racist terms is surely more shocking and more powerful now than it was fifty years ago. Few other songs have much chance to make an impression though - the fact that the list of musical numbers tallies up to 41 gives a clue that many of them are just moments long and get lost in the sheer volume of material.


It's kind of how I felt about Jonathan O'Boyle's production in general; the cast is pretty uniformly great and there's a lot of energy but despite the thrust staging allowing the actors to drape themselves over the audience I felt a level of engagement was missing; perhaps more of a 2017 perspective on the fact that these people who confidently see themselves as the future of the world were quickly consigned to history (if not, clearly, for everyone in the audience.) The way some parts of the musical have aged better than others is undoubtedly a factor - I could certainly have used more of a look at why Claude feels he has to go to Vietnam, for such a central character we're really left to infer a lot of his inner struggle.


So for the most part this entertained but didn't really move me - it may be the show rather than the production because I felt the same about the Broadway revival that transferred a few years ago - but O'Boyle does have an ace up his sleeve for the finale, with "Let The Sun Shine In" getting an unexpectedly despair-filled performance that crystallises some of the darker issues Hair perhaps didn't quite get to grips with until then.

Hair by Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt Macdermot is booking until the 13th of January at the Vaults Theatre*.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Claire Bilyard.

*for audience members jealous that only the actors get to wave their cocks'n'minges about, there will be a clothing optional performance. No, really. It's on the 11th of November, so if you're going after that maybe check your seat for worrying stains or smells before you sit down.

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