Back in 1967 when Hair first opened, the hippie ideology and flower power movement were rife. As the US deployed more troops to Vietnam, thousands united on the streets in a series of anti-war protests. But far from being riotous, they were peaceful gatherings of young people bearing beards and beads, flowers and ‘herbs’, using music instead of violence in their call to end the war. The demonstrations were so iconic and theatrical, they inspired a musical that eulogised their dogma. A musical that would go on to send messages of peace and love to generations to come. Half a century on, ‘Hair’ is now embarking on its 50th anniversary UK tour. Find out how ‘Hair’ stands up to the audience of 2019 with TickX’s review for the production at Manchester Palace Theatre.
For a musical that has won a Grammy, Drama Desk and Tony Award; been revived several times; and significantly celebrated the abolishment of theatre censorship, there was a lot of hype surrounding the latest revival of ‘Hair’. This was most likely responsible for the buzz that occupied the Palace Theatre before the performance had even started. Surprisingly, the audience spanned from 25- 65 years old, demonstrating ‘Hair’s’ persistent appeal across age groups. Less-surprisingly, many came dressed to occasion, sporting hippy costumes and slogan t-shirts.
The show opened as actors with long hair, floral dresses, bandanas, and bare feet skipped through the auditorium to enter the stage from behind. In a whirlwind of confusion – which I believe was deliberately inspired to evoke the craziness and drug-infused hippy lifestyle, ‘Hair’ begins by using songs to introduce different members of a hippy commune. ‘Donna’, ‘Hashish’, ‘Sodomy’ and ‘Colored Spade’ were the first musical numbers, all visiting sensitive themes of race, religion, drug use, homosexuality and sexual liberation. They showcased the production’s relationship with controversy and quickly set forth the anti-conventional culture of the swinging 60’s. Next, the lead character and newest member of the tribe, ‘Claude’ played by Paul Wilkins, took to the stage to sing about his hometown. ‘Manchester, England’. This was always going to be a hit among the local Mancunian audience at the Palace Theatre. As expected, the soundtrack to ‘Hair’ continued to be a key part of the musical, taking older audience members back to era of their youth as they mouthed lyrics and recalled their favourite songs.
Perhaps the most distinctive part of the production was the ongoing interaction between actors and theatre-goers. Jake Quickenden played ‘Berger’, the charismatic lead member of the gang who confidently stripped down to his underwear and ran around the auditorium speaking to people. Tom Bales split his performance into ‘Glowy’ and ‘Margaret Mead’, where Mead singled out a front row audience member and called her a ‘harlet’, yet was a clear favourite of the show. Like in 1968, the final scene invited everyone on stage to dance out the reprise of ‘Let the Sunshine In’. All the characters were also likeable – even ‘Jeanie’ the smoking pregnant woman, which under normal circumstances would be frowned upon! Yet ‘Hair’ manages to take you away from reality to a fun-loving, colourful cosmos, where you – true to hippy fashion – ‘love everyone’. Throughout, ‘Hair’ was constantly engaging, adding humour and truly bringing you into ‘their’ world.
It wasn’t only the characters and music that had you tripping out. The creative set and choreography of ‘Hair’ are well worth recalling in this review. The stage was an explosion of vibrant colour. Countless ribbons dazzled the sides and ceiling – even strewn on balconies of theatre boxes. Musicians were also in costume, housed in wooden huts on stage to make them part of the hippy tribe. Arguably the most impressive display of creativity occurred during the recreational drug scenes. The feeling of getting high was conjured via a combination of blue lighting, swaying dancing, and smoke effects.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a review without mentioning ‘Hair’s’ most iconic scene. The explicit content of the show failed to pass censorship laws at the time of release in 1967. However, following their abolishment in 1968, ‘Hair’ went on to include the most famous pre-interlude scenes of all time. And in 2019, it was still a large part of the show. Just before the curtain dropped, the cast took over their clothes and lined up across the stage unapologetically exposing everything. Nudity is a key part of hippy culture, and so whether or not the scene was written to be authentic or just controversial, it makes sense alongside the other content of the show. The scene was less alarming at Manchester Palace Theatre than I assume it was back in the 60’s (maybe because some audience members were also expecting it), but still something unlike any other show I had been to.
Upon review, it was clear this production of ‘Hair’ very much embodied the original. It sought to break down barriers between audience and actors through interaction while also intending to shock and amuse throughout. Though lacking an explicit detailed plot so to say other than Claude’s battle to follow his summon to war or remain with the commune, ‘Hair’ still visits many themes and poses strong relevance to today’s political climate. The reference to Donald Trump at the beginning of the show further illustrated its applicability. While it may be less alarming for audiences of today, ‘Hair’ is still very much enjoyable and well worth a trip to the theatre to see. Just make sure you come ready to party for the final scene!