Hair is a musical designed to court controversy. Its famous nudity (which features only briefly) was only possible when the show originally played in London because of the removal of theatre censorship the day before opening night in 1968.
It tells the story of a tribe of hippies in New York who try to live a life of freedom and self expression. The backdrop is the Vietnam war and the looming threat of the draft. The apparent leader of the tribe, Berger (Jake Quickenden) sets the scene. Various characters then introduce both themselves and the tribe’s attitudes to sex, war, race, drugs – everything you shouldn’t discuss at a polite dinner party – in some of the numerous songs. Gradually a sort of narrative appears in which Claude (Paul Wilkins) has received his draft card to go to Vietnam. The tribe urge him to burn it but ultimately he feels duty-bound to accept his fate.
The show still has the power to shock and it’s important for the power of the piece that it does. Being drafted into the Vietnam war is not a real and live possibility as it was for audiences in 1968. To achieve that same effect 50 years later this production opens with what is to modern eyes the most daring thing you can do on stage – smoking! The entire cast line-up downstage and simultaneously light their cigarettes (or perhaps more likely spliffs). Shortly afterwards Berger is down to a G string and running into the audience. Having unsettled us we now know we are in the company not of a bunch of hippie throw-backs but daring, care free and individual people who know their own minds and bodies.
For all this, the music is where it’s really at. It’s packed with songs. Many you’ll know – The Age of Aquarius, I Got Life, Let the Sun Shine, Good Morning Starshine. The cast sound great individually and simply stunning together. The band is on stage, dotted about in various places and apparently playing without sheet music – heightening the sense of this being a spontaneous happening. And they are also terrific.
The colourful set is both atmospheric and effective, with brilliant lighting transforming the mood from song to song. This was my first ever experience of Hair and I was completely blown away by the music and the energy. It could so easily have been a period piece, but this feels modern, daring and relevant even 50 years on.
Hair is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 18 May 2019.