Book and Lyrics: Gerome Ragni and James Rado
Music: Galt McDermot
Director: Jonathan O’Boyle
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
It’s hard to imagine now that until 1968, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office had the power to censor theatre in Britain so that only licensed plays could be performed. Literally the day after censorship ended, Hair, the brainchild of friends Gerome Ragni and James Rado, burst onto the West End stage. It’s easy to see why it would be controversial at the time as it explored and celebrated the hippie culture in America immediately after the Summer of Love. It formed a powerful anti-war polemic at the height of the Vietnam war combining themes of sexual freedom, drug use and pacifism. Even if the 60s were swinging, Hair was still a major challenge to the status quo.
Now there’s a new production, tweaked with the help of Rado. But can a bunch of long-haired layabouts agonising over a war long gone now still have any significance today other than as a quaint museum piece?
It turns out that Hair does indeed still resonate. Its themes were and remain big ones. The treatment may not shock in the way that the original did, but one can still empathise with this tribe looking for something bigger and better than they; a better world no less. And while the Vietnam war might be a memory, over the intervening half-century there have been, and continue to be, many more equally controversial conflicts. So while Hair may be stuck in the late 1960s – and it has a definite 60s vibe in its look and sound – its themes still resonate. Yes, we cut our hair and our jeans are straight-cut now, but Hair’s message of tolerance and inclusivity remain relevant.
Even to those who have never seen Hair, the opening number, Aquarius, sung initially by Aiesha Pease and then with increasing power as more and more voices join in, is familiar to all and sets the show’s stall unequivocally. We’re living with a hippy tribe which has rejected many of the values of the western world showing most obviously in their dress and hairstyles. As in any family, there are tensions and jokers, shifting alliances, but their loyalty to one another and to the causes they espouse is absolute. It starts off playfully as we meet the tribe members, in particular, Berger (Jake Quickenden) and Claude (Paul Wilkins), loosely modelled on Ragni and Rado. As the tribe goes about its daily business, Claude receives his draft card and is encouraged to burn it in protest. Claude dithers and in order to save him, he’s given a joint with a hallucinogen and much of the second act plays out his surreal visions. The tribe decides to protest at the induction centre, but what will happen to Claude?
Quickenden and Wilkins may be central characters, but this is truly an ensemble piece. Each cast member has time in the spotlight and each has a terrific voice. The songs gain much of their power by the melding of different voices and styles, carrying one along and driving emotions even as the mood darkens.
Yes, Hair remains as exuberant and relevant as ever. It is indeed sobering to reflect that despite fifty years of progress, its messages still need to be heard. It’s about as far from a museum piece as you can get.
Runs Until 27 July 2019 and on tour | Image: Contributed