First appearing in London in 1968, 'Hair' broke new ground for musical theatre in terms of its depiction of the hippy culture of the late 1960s, its radically modern approach to sex and drugs, and took advantage of a long-overdue change in English law which abolished the office of Lord Chamberlain and the associated censorship in the theatre. Boldly going where no show had gone before, 'Hair' didn't simply risk the odd spot of nudity, it went for the censorship jugular and had the whole cast appearing completely nude.
The plot is about as thin as a layer of gold leaf on a pauper's tomb. In fact, the first twenty odd minutes are taken up with introducing the characters who all take a shot at displaying their vocal talents. After that, the story focuses on Claude who has received his draft card and is destined to fight in the Vietnam war. Fellow members of The Tribe (the group of young hippies he's a member of) offer differing solutions to his problem, eg hiding out in Canada etc.
'Hair' may well have been the first musical to deliberately draw the audience into the action by interacting with them. As I remember my visit to the original, the cast ran up and down the aisles distributing leaflets and talking to the audience which in itself was exciting and quite revolutionary at the time, but now it's become rather old hat. There are only so many times you can endure the cast pouring off the stage to parade up and down the aisles, and it begins to grate after a while, particularly in a theatre designed for traditional delivery.
However, there's much to commend in this exuberant, thoughtfully-produced revival. Director Diane Paulus makes no attempt to tinker with the time-frame or to artificially update the themes by introducing modern conflicts such as the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. And the company not only work well together, they seem to be enjoying themselves immensely and having fun – something lacking in many shows.
The musical score has some numbers which are all-time greats, for example 'Let The Sun Shine In' and 'Aquarius', but equally there are others which would not have been missed if they had been summarily consigned to the dustbin of history. Even so, the enthusiastic cast give give the numbers their best shot, and apart from some singing from one of the lead vocalists which seemed more like shrieking, the performances are convincing, intuitive and focused, and there are some fine voices to be heard.
The problem about staging a revival of 'Hair' is that it is – more than any other musical or play I can think of - a child of its time. And that time has long gone. When 'Hair' first appeared it gripped audiences because its views on drugs, sex and the Vietnam war were shocking, and it stuck two huge fingers in the air to war, conscription and traditional values. Seeing it at that time, you felt shivers of excitement flooding down your spine wondering if we you were all going to be arrested (I was a rather withdrawn northern lad at the time, and my naivety was pretty engrained). The other factor which made the show powerfully immediate was that it was all going on not just on stage in 'Hair but in the real world. But the world, and audiences have moved on. Sure it's fine to indulge in nostalgia and to celebrate a musical that was a trail-blazer. No problems there. But it has lost the moment in time when what it was depicting was happening for real, and you can't resurrect that no matter how faithfully you try to recreate it. In the end, it is interesting as a historical piece, but hardly inspiring. In fact, in the second half I found it a struggle to keep alert.
"A vibrant, joyous piece of living theatre."
Michael Billingtion for The Guardian
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"It’s exhilarating, as well as oddly poignant...unstoppable energy and ebullient choreography."
Benedict Nightingale for The Times
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
Michael Coveney for The Independent
"Diane Paulus’ direction is snappy and seamless, complimented perfectly by Karole Armitage’s lively choreography."
Paul Vale for The Stage