I didn’t know what to expect when I skipped into the West End to see Hair the musical last night. Hair is one of those unavoidable chunks of culture; you’ve heard the music (even if it’s via the Müller ads), you’ve vaguely picked up on references to the nudity and you probably know more than you think about the premise (hippies/drugs/Vietnam.) The main reason I still felt unsure, despite this psychedelic frame of reference, was that I hadn’t heard any standout songs and the synopsis itself didn’t draw me in hugely. But the iconic nature of the original late 60s production, the hit songs it produced and the buzz this year as the new Broadway revival was brought to London all made me curious about the show. I don’t particularly adore the music that I do know, but I had heard that it was such an infectiously uplifting night out that many friends were going back for more. So last night, just a few weeks before its schedule closure in September, I finally went to find out what all the fuss was about.
My verdict? It was great, but it wasn’t incredible. The music and the story didn’t blow my mind, but the vibrant vocals, colour and energy did. Audience participation is something I’m usually horrified by (my reserved Britishness finds it cringeworthy and my love of storytelling jars with the breaking of the fourth wall) but the rambly chattiness of the charismatic stoners and the weaving of the cast in and out of the audience, stroking hair and giving out flyers, was utterly charming. I would like to be able to say that this would also have been true of a British production, but I do feel the full-on Americana of the cast is what made it the solid, confident and slick spectacle it is. The quality of each singer just launches it into a different league to the rest of the West End.
The part I found baffling in such a hit was how hard it was to follow; I’m pretty clued up on the Vietnam war period, but the speed of the lyrics and the lack of diction (perhaps a conscious decision, but it didn’t work for me) meant I spent much of the first few character ‘snippets’ feeling completely lost, if very entertained. I hadn’t appreciated how much it had clearly influenced Rent, one of my favourite musicals, with its scenes of anarchic camaraderie, shock factor and loveable characters. But the tribe, whilst charismatic as a dancing, chanting, belting whole, did not have as much individual appeal as the bohemians of Rent. Caissie Levy really stood out for me with her honeyed vocals and subtlety of performance, but the limitless riffs of Aquarius soloist Dionne and the soaring optimism of leading man Gavin Creel also took my breath away. The group songs are the lifeblood of the show and the ensemble, most of whom have been together since the beginning of the Broadway revival last year, create a gloriously unified sound.
By the end I was certainly feeling the Love, the twin ideas of Peace and Love being a central part of the show. The air was fragrant with incense, the set lit with rainbow colours, the cast (on a bog-standard Tuesday night performance) seemed fresh as a daisy and high on life. I wasn’t as moved as I thought I’d be by the Vietnam war theme, perhaps due to the surreal ‘bad trip’ sequence that once again entertained and baffled me at the same time. This baffletainment sort of manages to work though, and there are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. Most of all you just want to be part of the gang, and even as someone who loves a power shower and loathes tie-dye, I had never found hippie life so seductively portrayed. For something less gripping than Wicked and less moving than Les Miserables, however, it is a shame that there is no option for cheap tickets. For £29.50 though, you can get into the Dress Circle, which we soon realised was prime hippie-partying ground. I didn’t have anyone dance along the back of my seat, but a tribe member did take a sip of my coke. So if you’re wandering the cloudy streets of London in the next couple of weeks and feel a bit bleak about life, I suggest you Let the Sun Shine In and bask in the transcendental aural trip that is the cast of Hair.