Chances are, you’ll know the musical ‘Hair’, even if you haven’t seen it – either from the fist-pumpingly anthemic number ‘Let The Sun Shine In’ or because of Nina Simone’s later medley of ‘Ain’t Got No, I Got Life’. This show floats in the atmosphere like a heady cloud of illegal substances.
Opening off-Broadway in 1967, at the height of the hippie movement, writers Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s biggest hit treats plot as a casual suggestion. Claude spends his days tripping with his free-loving, draft-dodging friends, protesting against the Vietnam War and going to ‘Be-Ins’, until Uncle Sam comes knocking.
This revival arrives in London after premiering at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre in 2016. It leans so heavily into nostalgia, you can barely see for the bandanas and hair. The show’s original spikiness has been softened by time. The clothes look like fancy dress these days. No one’s going to picket The Vaults for the famous act-one nudity.
But the anti-war sentiment pitted against gung-ho patriotism feels enduringly American. Trump would probably turn an even darker shade of orange over the treatment of the American flag in ‘Don’t Put it Down’.
The show’s ramshackle structure and wobbly characterisation (women, if they’re named, get to be pregnant or forlornly in love) add up to a period piece. While ‘Hair’ kicked off the rock opera genre, its roots are showing now. But I’m not down on it, kids. By not straining for contemporary resonance, director Jonathan O’Boyle releases its sheer, intoxicating joy.
A diverse ensemble cast are in fantastic voice as they belt out irreverently catchy songs like, er, ‘Sodomy’, backed by a live band relishing Galt MacDermot’s electric score. Robert Metson is an effectively conflicted Claude, while, as his friend Berger, Andy Coxon switches between playful gooning and self-centredness in a beat.
Against Ben Rogers’s rippling lighting design, William Whelton’s choreography creates a dreamy haze of bodies. This stripped-back production forgoes big-budget effects for buckets of lo-fi atmosphere. It really sells the gospel of togetherness that ‘Hair’ is preaching.