“Gliddy gloop gloopy nibby nobby nooby la la la lo lo”
Bloody immigrants coming over here and stealing our jobs… The Gielgud Theatre finds itself taken over by the musical Hair, but in what is described as a history-making transfer of the entire original Broadway cast. This was also a first encounter for me with this musical: I’ve never seen it or knowingly heard anything from it either, indeed when I mentioned this to people this week, they all proceeded to sing something about the age of Aquarius at me which rang precisely no bells whatsoever!
Hair is an examination of 1960s hippie culture, looking at a group of young adults struggling to define their identity in the face of generational pressures, the temptations of drugs and sex and most significantly, the dark shadow of the Vietnam War. The story as such that exists centres around Claude, a leader of sorts of the Tribe, a group of friends hooked on easy living with drugs and sex and who are all avowedly anti-war, determined to avoid being shipped to Vietnam. Claude’s sense of duty however means he is conflicted about the correct course of action for himself and it is his journey that drives the little narrative there is.
There’s no doubting the general exuberance of the production. From the first moments, the boundaries between stage and audience are blurred by the ensemble and all the way through, cast members move from the stage to the aisles, clambering over people, sitting on their laps (I had Will Swenson’ Berger sitting on me for almost a whole song, encouraging me to stroke his hair and love everyone around me) singing out and welcoming us into the Tribe.
As Claude, Gavin Creel is fabulous: very handsome, strong of voice and entirely convincing when playing the tormented songs of his indecision. He’s also excellent when playing the strong intense relationship with his closest friends Berger and Sheila, Caissie Levy, both of whom also bring huge amounts to the table (in Swenson’s case, perhaps a little too much over-exuberance!)
Bryce Ryness’ Mick Jagger-obsessed Woof was one of my favourite performers, very sweetly played, and Kacie Sheik’s pregnant pothead also stood out, whilst Darius Nichols is wonderfully fierce, I was glad to avoid him grinding in my face, a fate not escaped by my companion! However, although undoubtedly possessed of a mighty fine voice, Sasha Allen’s Dionne did not gel with the rest of the company, a fact not helped by her constant vocal riffing which set her apart from the Tribe, quite horribly so in the final rendition of Let The Sunshine In, I felt it really took away from the mood of the moment.
It’s an experience rather than a play, the musical side of things is entirely focused on creating the mood in the first half and it takes ages for any sense of a real story for emerge. And whilst this in itself is not a bad thing, the rush in the final scenes of the second act to provide depth and tragedy feel too little too late in terms of creating any sense of a real dramatic arc. And although the resentment of an unjust war may feel current, little of the genuine fear that was created by the draft can be felt by today’s society and I felt a bit uneasy at how little explanation was given about events especially around the burning scene. Ultimately, part of me thought it was all a bit too American, at one point I asked my companion why Napoleon was on the stage, to find out it was actually George Washington, and the rest of the hallucination sequence featuring American historical figures fell a bit flat for me and left me really quite bored.
And part of this is due to the music. It was clearly a major nostalgia kick for many people who are familiar with these tunes, but to these fresh new ears, I found the faux-rock and folk-rock posturing a bit relentless. With so little story, and so many songs coming one after the other, I sometimes found it blending into one bland mass with little to capture the attention, despite the songs covering a huge range of styles. I Got Life and Let The Sunshine In were the two notable exceptions, and it is probably no coincidence that these were the two songs I recognised but had not realised originated from this musical. The band, situated onstage, were excellent, the brass section in particular deserve a mention.
I do worry slightly about the ticket pricing. I paid £40 with a special offer for a seat in the stalls that should have been £70, but even the front row of the top circle still costs £40. Some day seats are available at £20 a pop but I do wonder how sustainable this pricing is. Perhaps the cost of a wholesale Broadway transfer necessitates this I don’t know, but it does seem expensive. As it was, the audience around me was very tourist-heavy and rather poorly behaved: I’m not connecting these two things, but two different groups of people are their way through takeaway burger and fries just before the start and proceed to noisily slurp their way through large drinks once it had started. Where are over-officious ushers when you need them?!
All in all, I found this to be a bit of a conflicting evening. I didn’t love it half as much as I thought I might, though I found a lot to admire. We’re clearly reaping the benefits of seeing a well-established company that has connected with each other wonderfully and their enthusiasm carries much of the show.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Note: there’s nudity, references to sex and drugs and some strobe lighting in this. Also, if you’re one of those people who spend hours on their hair and/or can’t abide others touching your hair and you find yourself on the end of a row, swap with a friend!