Wednesday, April 27, 2016

'Hair' at the Bridewell Theatre, 26th April 2016

Hippies drive me up the wall. I should know - I was one. My late teens and early twenties were spent in a dreadlocked, tie-dyed marijuana cloud. Turns out I could only take so much lounging about doing fuck all, listening to people yammer on about crystals or humouring someone's bright idea of constructing a home-made septic tank in the back garden in order to keep his sewage from 'the man' (no, I don't understand either).

As a result I was having pretty fierce flashbacks almost from the moment Hair started. The stage was packed with the precise people I've tried to extricate myself from: painfully sincere, fuzzily angry but with limited political awareness, dosed out on ludicrous quasi-spiritual bullshit....

And yet... 

I couldn't bring myself to dislike Hair.

I came with vague ideas that it had far-out trappings, an antiwar position and that the cast got naked at some point. What transpired was an extremely loosely plotted conceptual musical that takes perverse pleasure in narratively meandering all over the place. Characters dip in and out of the plot, scenes warp into avant-garde drug trips and it tackles racism, sexism, conservatism, religion and war (often within the same song).

The nub of the show eventually proves to be two characters' reactions to receiving their Vietnam draft card. American flag shirt wearing hippie clown Berger (Barry Lattimore-Quinn) burns his and embraces pacifism, whereas the conflicted Claude (Franciscus Prins) finds himself torn between hippie ideals and his sense of duty to his country.

At surface-level Hair looks chaotic. Props are discarded at the sides of the stage, the large cast sprawls at the borders of the action and the choreography is loose and energetic. But getting something to look this free n' easy is extraordinarily difficult: this is a cast that've clearly knuckled under and approached the show with a rigor and seriousness that pays off.

On top of that, there's a shedload of great songs. Iconic tunes like Aquarius and Good Morning Starshine bristle with infectious optimism, going a long way towards thawing out cynical souls in the audience. Real sparkle comes later though, primarily via Melisa Minton-Djoumessi's Dionne, whose voice blows the roof off. White Boys, Walking Space and Abie Baby are all showstoppers, combining virtuoso singing and imaginative choreography - all loaded with impressively bold political rhetoric. (I also particularly enjoyed Pippa Welch's Frank Mills, though embarrassingly up to last night I thought it was written by Evan Dando).

Despite all this there are moments, predominantly in the first half, where you sense things might go awry. A couple of the performers, particularly Barry Lattimore-Quinn as Berger, just don't convince as 60s counterculture rebels. Saddled with a cheap-looking wig, he plays the role too stagily, fostering a weird sense of artificiality around him. For me, the show worked best when it was most sincere, but whenever Berger was front and central it felt a bit like the 60s being fetishised and costumified rather than properly understood.

Franciscus Prin's Claude fares much better, the show shifting up a gear in quality as he grapples with the Vietnam draft. The emotional pinnacle of the show - Claude emerging uniformed and buzzcutted - worked brilliantly, as did his baleful detachment from his former friends.

My only other real criticism is a slightly awkward one to make: but I was genuinely disappointed that they chickened out on the nudity front. I think some of the cast get naked at the climax of the first act, but they're hidden behind dry ice and a dazzling blue wash, so it's difficult to tell. Obviously no-one should be compelled to do something on stage they're uncomfortable with, but not fully committing to Hair's 'the human body is a beautiful thing' philosophy weakens this production's credibility.

At 50 years old, Hair still feels forward thinking. The hippie aesthetics might be dated to the point of cliche, but the sheer courageousness of tackling colossal social issues head on retains the capacity to startle. For example, I doubt a contemporary show would even dream of approaching racism in the way Hair does. All too often stage musicals wrap their audience in cotton wool, paying mere lip service to politics for fear of alienating the audience. Hair vehemently strikes out in the opposite direction - it's radicalism passionately and sincerely felt.

This particular production has a few wonky elements but Geoids have undoubtedly captured the essence of Hair. I'm glad I got to see it.


Hair is at the Bridewell Theatre until 30 April. Tickets here.

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