Hair – Wolverhampton Grand Theatre
Passers- by on Wolverhampton Broad Street may have mistaken the billboards for “Hair” as an immediate tribute to our new Prime Minister’s legendary tousled locks. They would have been disappointed. Instead this is a 50th Anniversary tour of a show which premiered in 1967.
It is a production which had a contemporaneous reputation as a trail blazer, shocker, and as the first rock musical. The story is taken from a book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, with music by Galt MacDermot.
A lavish set oozes 60’s culture, a live band sits in assorted tepees, hides and dens, slogans abound, providing the platform for this tale of the “tribe”, hippies of the “Age of Aquarius”, draft dodging in New York City. Claude (Paul Wilkins) Berger ( Jake Quickenden), and their roommate Sheila (Daisy Wood Davies) and their friends, a performing cast of fourteen, lay bare their struggle with American conservatism and the youth culture explosion burgeoning all around them.
I was a child living in America during this period, hippies were regarded as communists, subversives and perverts whose aim it was to subvert decent America. It is difficult, half a century later to comprehend the generation gap, and the ideological schism which prevailed. The show opens with the cast lighting spliffs, shocking at the time, now it is commonplace on Wolverhampton High Street. Masturbatory jokes which will have shocked originally have now been popularised, and improved upon, in “Avenue Q” and more. The onstage nudity at the end of Act One is tempered by internet pornography, music videos and even television in the modern age. The Hair of 2019 has much to compete with, but can lay claim to be the progenitor of much of what has followed.
The cast throw themselves into the production with enthusiasm and vim, the clothes a wonderful trip down memory lane as the cast embark upon a trip of an entirely different nature. Forays into the audience have their comic value exploited to the maximum, not least by Tom Bales as Margaret Mead. A song is never more than a few minutes away, there are forty of them, the live band faithfully recreating the sixties sound with some excellent solo songs being taken by the cast.
It is also easy to forget that modern pop was barely a decade old when this show was written, the edge that the music itself represented then, has now been dulled by its incorporation into the mainstream.
My only reservation was the arrangements of the chorus singing. Fourteen voices are a lot, a decent choir. The songs never lacked volume, or gusto, but did lack nuance, particularly on the opening “Aquarius”. It is a song made for harmonies. The 5th Dimension who made the song famous numbered only five, but their arrangement was stunning. Those harmonies and parts were largely absent here, instead it was blasted out, and at a pace a little slower than it should have been.
Paul Wilkins, is the dominant performance of the show, and convincingly portrays the moral conundrums of the time, his solo vocals on “I Got Life” and “Where Do I Go” are terrific. The script has been updated to allow references to Trump and Afghanistan, drawing the narrative into the 20th century, and the themes explored still resonate today, although hippy culture looks more quirky and quaint now, than revolutionary.
This is a fine revival of a period piece which will be nostalgic for those in their seventies, and a useful historical reference point for younger people wishing to track modern musical theatre history. It also boasts one of the best programmes I have ever seen, for once, it is well worth the money. Hair runs until 27th July, and continues on tour to Cologne and Glasgow.