Updated: Apr 10, 2019
Book and lyrics Gerone Ragni and James Rado; music Galt MacDermot
Aria Entertainment, Senbla and Hope Mill Theatre
Palace Theatre, Manchester
8 April 2019 - 13 April 2019 and UK tour until August; 2hr 30min, inc interval
Famed these days more for the revolution it spearheaded in what is allowed on a British stage – virtually anything, but in this case nudity and swearing - Hair launched in London in 1968 and opened a UK tour at the Manchester Palace a year later. I remember it well and contrary to the popular saying, I was really there and it was, at the time, pretty sensational.
I’ve since seen the occasional revival and each time it emerged, sadly, as little more than a period piece rather than the barrier-breaking experience it first was. It’s back at the Palace, based on a generally much-liked production that originated just across town at Manchester’s admirable Hope Mill Theatre, but recast and restaged for larger venues. I didn’t see it at Hope but on this larger stage, for me it again proves it’s a show best admired for what it did, rather than what it is.
To grasp what it is/was all about you need to appreciate the sensational real-life 1960s background: man on the moon; Cuban missile crisis; Kennedy assassination; free love; Greenpeace and the Vietnam war to name just a few. It was pretty unbelievable and it was out of this morass that young New York actors James Rado and Gerome Ragni conjured Hair, more a Happening, a disjointed, thinly-scripted ramble, rather than a strictly-organised show.
The current production tries for that spontaneity but doesn’t succeed. Director Jonathan O’Boyle has made one or two attempts at adding present-day references (there’s something about Trump on voice- over that I missed at the beginning) but actually it’s still 1967, the Age of Aquarius, and the East Village hippie tribe is hoping to change a world that very much needs changing, practising free love and uniting in protest. While the Vietnam war overshadows everything, the tribe presses for peace and love in a time of social unrest.
On a simple set of multi-coloured ribbons, with a five-piece band perched aloft, the appealing and energetic cast does its best with what, too frequently, is material I didn’t really want to see.
If I was O’Boyle I’d have cut big chunks (particularly in the second-act hallucination scene) rather than adding bits I don’t remember, to highlight the good bits.
Despite an often very quiet audience - until the obligatory cheers and standing at the end - there are still plenty of good things, even though I often didn’t like the new arrangements of the score and found key moments I still treasure (I could once have recited every lyric on the LP) rushed or inaudible.
But it’s a very capable cast. Jake Quickenden (Dancing On Ice 2018 champ) is the rebellious Berger, leaping about in a thong. There’s Hollyoaks’ Daisy Wood-Davis as love interest Sheila, who has a strong and very sweet soprano, used to moving effect in Easy To Be Hard, and Paul Wilkins is particularly outstanding, both vocally and character-wise as Claude the potential draft dodger.
I don’t know what commercial considerations led to Hope Mill touring this show rather than the far superior production of Spring Awakening, but I hope it puts enough in the coffers to bring back the latter sometime soon.