The wave of patchouli hits you as you enter The Vaults, less like falling down the rabbit hole than stumbling, joyously stoned through Camden Market. Tie dye, elephant patterned throws and lanterns that the owner will definitely claim that they picked up for 10p backpacking through Nepal pull you back into a world of counter-culture recognizable from a hundred university bedrooms, impossible to regard without affection for its reckless idealism. A hundred marijuana-fueled conversations and (literally) half-baked plans: YES, we’re all the same, we should have a sit-in in the library, but tell me, have you ever read Kerouac?*
Designer Maeve Black has transformed The Vaults usually unforgiving space to conjure you back, cleverly, not to the sixties but to some inner place where we can empathise with the ideals of Hair’s young tribe of 1969. It is a fantastic lead in to this 50th–anniversary production. Plus, I think it’s the only theatre bar in London where you can drink gin in a wigwam, and I am so in favour of that.
The auditorium and stage are festooned with ribbons, something between a pageant and being inside the world’s largest technicolor shredder. The opening number showcases one of the standout talents from this exuberant, sexy cast (no orgy ever truly looked this good). Shekinah McFarlane’s initial bars of ‘Age of Aquarius’ are both stirring and a relief. Hair is a bloody difficult show to sing and McFarlane’s impassioned, heart-in-mouth delivery acts as a reassuring comforter to the audience: don’t worry guys, we got this.
It’s a competency that isn’t 100%; there are moments where unnecessary choreography overpowers the lyrics or an occasional solo seems close to cracking, but it’s pretty damn solid. Natalie Green cuts through the rest – you are constantly looking for her voice. There is a vivacity to this cast that only those dead inside couldn’t warm to. They move as a beautiful kaleidoscope of bodies, with the titular flowing hair through the tight songs and loose plot.
While the nakedness (yes, end of Act 1, you see everything, all splendid) no longer shocks, its surprising how much of Hair remains potentially controversial. ‘Don’t Put It Down’, mocking the religious fervour some still pay to the American flag, slices through performative patriotism. When kneeling during the national anthem is a powerful statement, ridiculing the stars and stripes remains an act of demonstration.
But it is the frank articulation of racial divides that remains most powerful. Half a decade has done little to dilute the intensity of ‘Hud’ (an arresting Jammy Kasongo) donning white gloves in a grotesque reminder of minstrel shows and singing racist slurs in ‘Coloured Spade’. There can’t be many such songs in musical theatre that simultaneously make you feel sick to the stomach, (you’ve heard or seen every one of these racist references more recently than you’d like to imagine) and are so fantastically catchy.
Johnathan O’Boyle’s production makes a valiant attempt at illuminating the emotional labour of the women in Hair but it’s a shame that Shelia’s (Laura Johnson) beautiful lament ‘Easy to be Hard’ is reduced by immediate reconciliation with the poster man-child of free love Berger (Andy Coxon). The role of the women in Hair remains to love rather than to be loved, with the pregnant Jeanie (an attention-stealing Jessie May) and the classic ode to being stood up ‘Frank Mills’ showing how the women of the revolution throw themselves emotionally and intellectually behind the cause until there is nothing left of them to give.
Hair reminds us that to love without (or with at least with the good intention of loving without) prejudice or hope of reward is a revolutionary act. It is also brilliantly bonkers. There is something about insane times, then and now, that makes taking a trip into absurdity the only logical step. Watching the cast sing happy birthday to Abraham Lincoln, who also happens to be a black woman, backed by grass skirted dancers is simultaneously weird and somehow just right for right now.
In short, it made this nihilistic goth stand up in the aisle and dance to a song about Hippie Life. Hair is one of the first rock musicals, a term overused for jukebox musicals from bands with more than one guitar. Here, a fringe musical has brought the soul-baring feel of hearing your favourite song through every speaker in a stadium into a sweaty tunnel under Waterloo. Indeed, it lets the sun shine in.
*On a side note, we need a movement to move on from the Beat poets as the teenager-seduction-literature of choice. If someone compares you to a bright, burning Roman candle, don’t fuck them, demand a wider canon.
Hair is at The Vaults until January 13th. For more details, click here.