We might still be in the age of Aquarius, or we may not yet have entered it, depending on whose calculations you prefer, but it is now over fifty years since Hair opened on Broadway in April 1968. Its London debut was five months later at the Shaftesbury Theatre, where it literally brought the roof down in 1973, bringing its run to an end. The delayed UK opening was to allow for the Theatres Act 1968 to come into effect.
A pounding piece of theatrical history
As many in the audience were not born then and others may still be unaware of theatre law until that date, it’s worth taking a while to reflect upon the situation at that time, as it profoundly affected the musical’s performance and success. From 1737 all scripts were subject to approval by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, which was empowered to require changes before it granted a performance licence or it could refuse one completely. Hence the Lord Chamberlain became known as the official censor; the arbiter of public decency and what might pose a threat to public order. One way around the law was to make theatres into private members clubs, but a successful prosecution against Edward Bond’s Saved in 1965 highlighted the growing gulf between what the law would allow and what the public wanted to see. The Act received royal assent on September 26th and Hair opened the following evening, complete with previously unimaginable period profanities and nudity.
From where we are today, it’s hard to imagine what all the fuss was about. Hair is rooted in the politics of its day, which centred around the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement, combined with the hippie drug scene and New Age philosophy. The storyline, such as it is, revolves around commune member Claude (Paul Wilkins). He receives his draft to join the army. Should he go along with the many who answered their country’s call or join the increasing ranks of rebels and burn it? It’s an opportunity for everyone to join in the debate while revealing the many aspects of their liberated lifestyles and indulge in a hallucinogenic sequence covering various aspects of US history. The whole show is dominated by Berger (Jake Quickenden), a 'psychedelic teddy bear', whose role approximates to that of a ringmaster at the circus.
Colour abounds in this production. The proscenium arch is edged with a fringe in all the shades of the rainbow. Ben M Rogers’ lighting design takes full advantage of the psychedelia with blinding steels, glaring primaries and some creative highlighting and mood scenes. The music, under the direction of Gareth Bretherton, has fewer contrasts. For the most part it is blasted out unrelentingly at full volume, as is the singing. While the voices are certainly heard, most of the words are lost in the desire to create effect, as is some of the dialogue. Daisy Woods-Davis’ understated rendition of 'Good Morning Starshine' provides a brief respite from the overwhelming fortissimo and unintelligibility. Wilkins alone makes this musical into something of a drama, with his character torn in all directions and a delivery that functions even when Claude is stoned. Quickenden clearly relishes his role as much as he loves his admittedly impressive physique and he can certainly belt out the big numbers. Ultimately the pelvic thrusts and flaunting of the pecs and six pack appear excessive even in the context of a somewhat self-indulgent production. As for the infamous nude scene, played in the dimly lit nether regions, rear stage, as Act 1 fizzles out, it was barely noticeable.
If the music is your scene, or you wish to relive your hippie youth, or just want to see what all the fuss was about, Hair could certainly be a fun night out; otherwise it might just come across as a pounding piece of theatrical history.