When it was first performed 50 years ago, Hair caused quite a stir with its profanity, depictions of drug use and full frontal nudity. These days it’s far less shocking, but still raises an eyebrow or two with its extensive list of pre-show warnings (it’s the first – and quite possibly last – time I’ve ever seen a notice on the door alerting me to “a 20-minute UV sequence”) and even in these more liberal times, it’s still not a show I’d recommend if you’re easily offended. But there’s no question that this 50th anniversary tour is a very strong production, which explodes on to the Orchard stage in a psychedelic showcase of spectacular vocal and visual talent. And songs. A lot of songs.
Written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado with music by Galt MacDermot, Hair is set in 1960s New York and invites us into the world of “the tribe”, a group of long-haired, peace-loving hippies who take a lot of drugs, have a lot of sex, and ultimately take to the streets in protest against the war in Vietnam. One of their number, Claude (Paul Wilkins), becomes torn between staying true to the pacifist views he shares with his friends and burning his draft card in protest, and the expectation of society and his conservative parents that he go and fight for his country.
A large proportion of Act 1 is taken up by introducing the characters and their way of life; it’s not so much a plot as a picture, which forms piece by piece as each member of the group has their moment in the spotlight. Among them are Berger (Jake Quickenden), who within minutes is running around in the audience wearing a very skimpy loin cloth and not a lot else; Sheila (Daisy Wood Davis), the group’s most outspoken political protester; Jeanie (Alison Arnopp), who’s pregnant and in love with Claude; Woof (Bradley Judge), who’s in love with Mick Jagger… Everyone has their part to play – and although in Act 2 Claude emerges as the story’s central character, the show is performed throughout by a well-honed and seamless ensemble.
While the almost total absence of a coherent plot won’t be to everyone’s taste, one thing that can’t be denied is the quality of the performances. The vocally demanding score – which features an unusually large number of songs, including timeless favourites I Got Life, Aquarius and Let The Sunshine In – proves no match for either Gareth Bretherton’s on-stage band or the fourteen-strong cast. The latter in particular seem utterly unfazed by the high notes, the tongue-twisting lyrics or the fact that they often have to tackle both whilst jumping up and down, lying on the floor, or stark naked (although in fairness, that only happens once and you don’t really see anything).
As we were leaving, my friend said that she thought Hair was “of its time” – but I’m not sure I agree. While the set, costumes and characters are very obviously from the 60s and the story speaks about a specific moment in American history and culture, the idea of a nation divided and the responsibility we all have to speak out against injustice and toxic nationalism is, depressingly, as topical now as it’s ever been. So maybe what’s most shocking about Hair isn’t the nudity or the drugs, but the fact that 50 years have passed and nothing’s really changed.
Hair is at the Orchard Theatre until 18th May, then continues on tour.