It has nudity, tribe vibes and audience stage parties. But does this hippy classic still deliver?
I really wanted to like Hair’s 50th anniversary tour. Indeed, considering it was conceived in Manchester’s very own Hope Mill - the fringe treasure that has put Ancoats firmly on the national theatre map - I was expecting to. But sadly I was underwhelmed.
For those unfamiliar, Hair (named for its characters’ flowing tresses) follows a tribe of peaceful hippies who are fighting conscription into the Vietnam War. Set in sixties New York, it reflects the huge swathe of young people who’d become disillusioned with society and found solace in drugs, naturism and the sexual revolution following the fifties Beat.
Premiered just after the famous 1967 Summer of Love, which followed a series of ‘be-ins’ (tribe gatherings) and the record-breaking Monterey Pop Festival, Hair reflected the psychedelic new movement that had swept through San Francisco and beyond. After finding musical found popularity on Broadway, it then became an international sensation; shocking at the time due to its nudity, language and sheer rebellion (it was even initially banned in London, due to censorship laws that were later repealed.)
The fact that attitudes have since changed dramatically is perhaps part of the problem; in an age of internet porn and increased liberalism, Hair feels a little dated. That and fact there is scarcely any story, save Claude’s conscription: should he defy the law and burn his draft card, or succumb to society and his parents by serving in Vietnam?
Having never seen another version of Hair, I have no comparison, but also found the lack of dialogue and characterisation galling. We never really get to know any of the characters, or much of their relationship to each other. Instead the show relies on one (admittedly excellent) musical number after another, and the hippies’ sheer exuberance; entertaining at first but ultimately a little irritating. There was only so much plant worshipping, moon admiring and hallucinatory giggling I could take without feeling like I wanted to throttle someone.
I also felt that, while the show may have suited its initial Hope Mill home - and later the equally intimate London Vaults - it didn’t translate to a large venue like the Palace. The set never changed and we got none of the festival vibes that characterised previous venues, where visitors were apparently greeted by the likes of tepees and patchouli.
That all said, there are plenty of standouts: Galt MacDermot’s lively score, including classics like Aquarius and Let the Sun Shine In; William Whelton’s choreography and the stunning visuals and costume to name but a few. Singing was also exceptional and there was a healthy sprinkling of comedy throughout.
As ever, the show ended with an audience ‘be-in’, with many getting up onstage on and dancing. It’s just a shame I wasn’t feeling the love.
Hair the Musical is at the Palace Theatre until 13 April
Main image: Johann Persson