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Hair – Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
Book and Lyrics: Gerome Ragni and James Rado
Music: Galt MacDermott
Director: Jonathan O’Boyle
First staged nearly 50 years ago, Hair, is the quintessential 60s “hippy musical”. With its origins in flower power and fierce opposition to the Vietnam War, Hair, was first produced at the New York Shakespeare Festival Theatre, later transferring to Broadway where it ran for over 2,000 performances. Hair is credited as being the first rock musical, paving the way for other blockbuster shows, including The Rocky Horror Show and Jesus Christ Superstar.
Set in New York in 1968, Hair, depicts a group of young people living in the East Village, who mirroring similar groups in San Francisco and Europe, reject pressures to conform from their parents and conservative America and turn themselves into a peace-loving tribe. They look to Eastern philosophy and meditation to create a new world where the norms are peace and love. As they question authority and enjoy the freedoms of the new sexual revolution they draw inspiration from the dawning of a new age; the mood and sentiments of which are beautifully expressed in the opening number, The Age of Aquarius.
Important as the backdrop of political arrest and agitation is, it is the set of wonderfully diverse and dynamic characters and their complex lives and relationships that provide the show with its dramatic heart. At the centre of these are Claude, who must decide whether to resist the draft as his friends have done or to compromise his pacifistic principles and go to Vietnam; his close friend Berger and their roommate Sheila.
It is Claude’s agonising decision about the draft that drives the show and takes up most of the second half, fuelled on a cocktail of drugs he embarks on a long fantastical trip during which he visualises and encounters legendary figures from America’s past and present including President Lincoln and Aretha Franklin and pictures himself on the frontline in Vietnam. The staging during this lengthy sequence is stunning with both Jonathan O’Boyle’s inspired direction and William Whelton’s, innovative and dazzling choreography, creating many breathless and spellbinding moments of stunning musical theatre.
The energetic and wonderfully engaging cast of Hair is one of the strongest that this reviewer has seen assembled for a musical anywhere. It is almost invidious to single out performers for praise but Robert Metson as Claude, Laura Johnson as Sheila and Ryan Anderson as Berger are outstanding. They lead an exceptionally talented Company who perform with class, style and an extraordinary level of commitment. Led by Gareth Bretherton, the small onstage band provide incredibly tight musical accompaniment, the sound balance is superb throughout, which given that some sound equipment was stolen from the venue only hours before the performance makes this achievement even more remarkable.
As with Hope Mill’s previous musical production, Parade, Hair, fits perfectly into the converted theatre, a former mill and warehouse. The walls of the theatre are covered with wire fencing, on which are fastened coloured ribbons, highly visible symbols of peace, a reminder that although the musical may be set in the Sixties, many of the themes and issues that it highlights are still very pertinent and topical today. It is impossible to watch this production and not think of recent events in America. Although Hair is ultimately a slice of theatrical musical history, this stunning production, with occasional nods to the present, contains one essential and very timely message articulated by one of the characters at the outset that, ‘we are all one.’
Following the phenomenal success of Parade, which this show is sure to repeat and with the recent announcement that Hope Mill will stage three new musicals next year, the venue is currently riding the biggest of musical theatre waves imaginable and long may it continue to do so. This show is guaranteed as the final song gleefully proclaims to Let The Sun Shine In on anyone who sees it.
The Reviews Hub
Reviewed by Richard Hall
Nov 17, 2016