THIS production of HAIR at Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre celebrates the 50th anniversary of a show that is regarded as the Daddy of Rock Musicals.
It is also a homage to hippidom, proffering its ‘flowers not bullets, make love not war philosophy’.
After a couple of forced closures by The Lord Chamberlain’s Office, the London production finally opened at The Shaftesbury Theatre London on September 25, 1968 – the day after the ancient theatre censorship laws were repealed. It then ran for over 2,000 performances.
Back then it was considered ‘oh-so-shocking’ promoting as it did – sex (love-ins – the quaint forerunner of swinging), drugs (many people felt the world seemed so much better observed through a cannabis cloud) and rock ‘n’ roll (the dialogue being mostly sung and set to boom, bang and twang).
Today’s bang up-to-date revival, despite its abundance of profanity and its anti war message, doesn’t shock!
Even the iconic moment when the entire cast shed their clothes brings a smile not a tut.
In fairness, the music – apart from the big standards – is repetitive and the storyline is paper-thin. It does however bring a big broad smile, the occasional wet eye and joyously – for those of us that were lucky enough to have lived it – a hop and a skip down memory lane to when our hair went way below our shoulder line regardless of gender and our clothes were the ensigns of a rainbow.
I hope that’s set the scene and just so you know, don’t go expecting a traditional musical but if you are prepared to be part of an experience, then, like me, you will come out a happy, trippy soul.
The setting by designer Maeve Black comprises a cacophony of multi-coloured fabrics, echoing Tibetan prayer flags combined a colourful street festa. The band under the excellent musical direction of Gareth Bretherton are scattered around the stage in little tropical dugouts where they play, watch, drink beer and join in the party.
At the opening, a gauze replaces the traditional curtain, this is covered in anti-war and peace logos through which burning trash cans can be seen. A cloud of sweet-smelling stage smoke hovers over the audience as we enter and continues throughout, sometimes so dense its like being lost in a fog.
The company or ‘tribe’ as they would prefer to be known, enter through the auditorium, form a line along the front of the stage then strike matches and light reefers in perfect synchronisation. The gauze ‘drops’ – not rises – and we are welcomed into the ‘East-side Village’ of 1960s New York to witness the dawn of the age of ‘Aquarius’.
There is a lot of jumping in and out of the audience from this highly energetic and talented tribe. The choreography by William Whelton gives the production a feel of moving twixt bouncy trampolines and floating off on clouds of cotton wool. Director Jonathan O’Boyle adds to this with most of the action being seemingly sprinkled with a generous helping of fairy dust – making cast and audience join together in one big transcendental trip.
Jake Quickenden is excellent as Berger the tribe leader. Paul Wilkins as Claude wrestles superbly with his conscience on whether to do what the tribe wants and burn his draft card or make his mum and dad proud by donning the green uniform, clipping his locks and offering up his life by protecting the nice capitalist South Vietnamese people from their nasty northern communist neighbours.
This is a solid cast with no weak links and they all have lovely voices but the one with the stand-out angelic tones for me is Natalie Green as Cassie.
Musically the best number is saved until last and conversely to the laid back opening – the final ‘Let the Sun Shine In’ is an awesome adrenaline-fuelled showstopper that brings everyone to their feet where we all stay for a ten minute walkdown party.
The diverse audience comprised of the young (some of whom seemed slightly bemused by it all) to the silver fox generation who I would like to think had arrived fresh from protesting about planet destruction in London – hair gone and not so sprightly as they were back in the day but with their passion still burning like beacons.
The party goes on all week at the Alex and tours till September around the country– turn up – tune in – turn on.
HAIR is at the Alexandra Theatre until Saturday, May 4.
Visit https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/hair-the-musical/the-alexandra-theatre-birmingham/ for more information and tickets.
Review by Euan Rose.