Thursday 12 October 2017

Hair - Review

The Vaults, London


Music by Galt MacDermot
Book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni

Shekinah MacFarlane and the cast

Transferring down from Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, Jonathan O’Boyle’s production of Hair is an exciting revival of a show that was to define so much of the 1960s. Following a “tribe” of Manhattan hippies Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt Macdermot’s musical explored a range of modern music genres as a narrative evolves that focuses on racial integration and social and political challenge. The story plays out under an overarching theme of copious drug consumption in New York while on the other side of the world the much loathed Vietnam conflict rages. Hair blazed a trail for challengingly political musical theatre - indeed, swap the slaughter and sacrifice of Vietnam for the ravages of HIV and Hair becomes an arguable precursor to Rent.

While the show’s themes remain noble in intent, Hair is very much a museum piece. A Trump themed intro (and even a re-written song from Rado to reference POTUS #45) fail to convincingly shift the show’s message into the 21st century though perhaps this is not surprising with the nature of protest itself having changed over the decades. Fuelled by the internet and social media, the world has evolved into a far more cold and cynical place from the flower-powered idealism of 50 years ago.

That being said, Hair remains a cracking cultural milestone and while Ragni and Rado’s cooky storyline is probably best savoured under the influence of (modest) intoxication, it is clear that O’Boyle has assembled a stunning company for his revival of a show that is packed with iconic songs.

In what is very much an ensemble piece that demands a strong company throughout, the Tribe are led by close friends Berger and Claude. Berger remains committed to the peace-loving hippie cause as the show’s arc sees Claude ultimately enlist. Andy Coxon brings a commandingly lithe power to Berger as Robert Metson’s Claude presents a far more complex character (albeit one who can give a gorgeous Mancunian twang to Manchester, England!) While we may not understand Claude’s motive for enlisting, Metson ensures that at all times his character demands our sympathy.

The casting is excellent and at times, sensational. There is standout work from Shekinah Macfarlane whose Dionne kicks off proceedings with an ethereally energetic Aquarius. Laura Johnson's Sheila accompanies herself on guitar in a heartbreakingly gorgeous interpretation of Good Morning Starshine while in the first half, a white gloved Jammy Kasongo as Hud briefly electrifies with Colored Spade as Natalie Green puts in a tiny, perfect cameo as Mom.

Andy Coxon and the cast

The driving energy of this revival is powered by Gareth Bretheton’s 5 piece band and especially Tom Hutchison’s stunning work on drums. Macdermot’s melodies span a range and fusion of styles and in one of the most impressive bands to be seen in off West End theatre for quite some time, Bretherton gives the score and the show a pulsating, rock-based intensity.

As a venue The Vaults is potentially perfect. Draped in ribbons and yet, literally tucked under the rumbling tracks of Waterloo Station, it hints at the grimy squalor of a squat. Acoustically however, the challenges of a railway basement have been well addressed with the show’s sound design (Calum Robinson and Max Perryment) proving virtually perfect.   

For some in the audience Hair will offer nostalgia, for others chance to discover, or re-discover, a musical that was to break the cultural mould in so many ways, in the process giving rise to some modern yet timeless numbers. It’s a great night at the theatre.

Runs until 13th January 2018
Photo credit: Claire Bilyard

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