Hair, The Vaults, London ★★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

When the Age of Aquarius arrives, it will be sheathed in a sheen of perspiration. At least, if the 50th anniversary revival of Hair is anything to go by.

Staged in one of the railway arches of The Vaults complex running under Waterloo station, designer Maeve Black swathes the entire place in peace ribbons, obscuring every inch of Victorian brickwork and transforming the space into a hippy sweat lodge.

The venue is warm to begin with, but once Ben M Rogers’ lighting (which uses older fixtures as well as modern LED lighting, which adds to the temperature) fires up, things begin to heat up all the more.

But of course, the real heat needs to come from the cast, as they portray a group of counter-culture dropouts in 1960s New York and react against orthodoxy, including but not limited to the Vietnam War.

To bring us back to that era, director Jonathan O’Boyle prefaces the pieces with an audio montage starting with Donald Trump and quickly progressing back through Obama, George W Bush, Reagan and other US presidents. In turning back the clock, that brief opening message suggests that both military actions and protests against them are, sadly, timeless.

Andy Coxon shines through as Berger, the most charismatic and central of the characters, providing the glue that keeps the community together both as a character and as a cast member.

And what an assembly of characters. Act I serves mainly as an introduction to all the ensemble, with a series of songs (by Galt MacDermot, with lyrics by book writers Gerome Ragni and James Rado) giving each cast member their moment in the spotlight.

Whether it is Liam Ross-Mills’ Woof rattling off a list of taboo sexual practices in ‘Sodomy’, or Hud (Jammy Kasongo) satirising the stereotype of African-American characters on stage in ‘Colored Spade’, the show begins to illustrate how it challenged theatrical norms five decades ago.

And while the intervening years have seen theatre open up and shake off many of the shackles Hair was straining against, this anniversary production continues to makes those elements work.

It is the introduction of Robert Metson’s Claude that gives Hair its narrative strand, as the character receives the call-up to join the military and must decide whether to join the draft, or burn his card for the greater good and face prison.

Metson’s introduction in ‘Manchester England’, a US-written pastiche of the British pop music invasion of the time, plays rather differently with a British cast instead of an American one, as Claude pretends to be Mancunian despite hailing from upstate New York. Metson’s Manchester brogue is so spot-on that it only accentuates that this is a cast of Brits playing Americans.

Indeed, several performers struggle to escape the feeling that they are merely playing New York hippies. It’s never truly a distraction, but the ease with which cast members including Natalie Green’s Cassie and Shekinah McFarlane’s Dionne inhabit their roles is highlighted in comparison.

The backbone of Act II is a fevered, hash-fuelled dream sequence as Claude considers his options. Use of UV lighting and a huge, billowing bolt of blue silk help lend an ethereal air to the whole sequence.

But in this act, as in the first, it is Hair’s famed musical numbers which really delight. From ‘Ain’t Got No’ and ‘I Got Life’, which in combination became a breakout hit for Nina Simone, to the classics ‘Aquarius’ and ‘Let the Sun Shine In’, which also had a pop music life outside the musical, the popularity of these songs underlines the influence Hair has had over the last 50 years.

Musical director Gareth Bretherton’s five-piece band takes full advantage of The Vaults’ acoustics to ensure that every number impresses.

As an anniversary revival of a show which is so in demand that it even got a name check on The Archers, one could not ask for anything more.

Continues until January 18. 

Production photo: Claire Bilyard. For some exclusive production photos by Roy Tan, visit the Musical Theatre Review copy of this review

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