A message lost over the years: Hair

Wimbledon Theatre
March 26, 2019

Charlotte Kasner

It is hard to believe that Hair is more than half a century old. In 1967, the very title was a provocation to the short back and sides generation that had fought in a world war and Korea, and were themselves children of parents who fought in another world war before that. Hair was a show of the streets, of protest, of counter-culture. It was truly ground-breaking in that it reflected the real experiences of its contemporaries, perhaps far more than the more usually cited Look Back in Anger, which for all its grittiness was still set in the realms of the domestic.

Hair ran for 1,997 performances and literally brought the house down: the roof of the theatre collapsed in July 1973, halting a run that was longer than the original Broadway production. However, a revival at the Old Vic in 1993 flopped, ostensibly because the cast consisted of “Thatcher’s children who didn’t really get it.” Times change, people change, and perhaps most importantly attitudes change, though. Even so, from where I’m sitting, this production doesn’t get it either.

Paul Wilkins as Claude in HairPhoto Johan Persson
Paul Wilkins as Claude in Hair
Photo Johan Persson

With the notable exception of Paul Wilkins’ Claude, characters don’t make it over the footlights. Some of this is inherent in the structure, but more effort is needed to make the audience care and give a damn instead of witnessing song after song banged out for no apparent reason. I do wonder how many even understand the reference to Margaret Meade in ‘My Conviction’, or do they think it is just a Grayson Perry look-alike celebrating transvestites?

Claude ends up going to Vietnam because he can’t quite separate himself from his upbringing. Wilkins gave by far the strongest performance but even he didn’t seem to believe himself when he sang “I believe in God, and I believe that God believes in me.” Not surprising that we didn’t believe it either, but it is essential in understanding his continual decision not to burn his draft card. For all the effort they made, this cast might have been toasting marshmallows round a jolly campfire. There was no sense of desperation to stop Claude from joining up, more of a here today, gone tomorrow indifference.

Hair is inevitably marketed as a musical about love, peace, freedom and happiness as the lyrics of its song ‘Hare Krishna’ say. It is a musical raging against war but also one demonstrating the ultimate impotence of the hippy movement. The original cast had lived through the genuine terror of the Cuban missile crisis and faced the slaughter of Vietnam. This generation is living on the same knife edge, with the potential for imminent armageddon between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-il, and young people still being sent off in their droves to fight in colonial wars.

Jackie Quickenden as Berger in HairPhoto John Persson
Jackie Quickenden as Berger in Hair
Photo John Persson

The hippies sing in their drug-induced euphoria “How dare they try to end this beauty?” In the decades that followed, they realised that their ‘space walks’ ended for many in paranoia and psychosis. Today’s addicts are using far stronger skunk and spice, not marijuana and morning glory seeds. Why not highlight the naivety of the generation that, after all, took to drugs to avoid facing the realities of the present, just as today’s addicts do? The reference to self-immolation was similarly glossed over, although the practice continues as a political protest. ‘Don’t Put It Down’ is a satire on the knee-jerk patriotism of people who revere the American flag. They haven’t gone away either have they?

Running through all this Hair is a bland sameness. When the tribe pick flowers and mimic their own graves, they may as well just be puppies rolling over for a tickle having just, by accident, rolled on some blooms.

Back to attitudes. These days, on stage smoking is considered far more shocking than the mixed cast that caused so much comment in the original production. Contemporary puritanism does dictate that nudity is off the agenda, though. Director Max Reynolds opts instead for having Berger (Jackie Quickenden) thrust his jock-strapped crotch in the faces of the front row and throw his trousers into the audience. It is aggressive and totally inappropriate.

Choreographer William Whelton had a lot to live up to following the 1979 Miloš Forman film, with dance by no less a light than Twyla Tharp, who used pedestrian movement to enable the singing and dancing to seem appropriate in a natural setting, including the wonderful sequence in Central Park where even the police horses morph into performing dressage. Whelton, in contrast, produces lots of skipping, jumping and wafting of arms and very little in between. It is dull and repetitive and adds nothing.

HairPhoto Johan Persson
Photo Johan Persson

Vocally, the cast struggled to be heard above the band. Singers resorted to hamming up songs such as ‘Frank Mills’ and ‘Air’, mugging replacing the vocal oomph required. ‘Air’ was yet another very topical opportunity that was missed, subtlety and meaning replaced by clouds of fug.

Maeve Black’s set is a mix of White Horse Inn gypsy meets harem. There is no concept of the fact that these hippies are camping out in a park, street protests passing by daily. There is no impact when winter sets in and they all begin to remember that they actually have comfortable homes to go to and have, of course, only ‘dropped out’ for the summer.

It really is painful to report that there is nothing to grab the headlines in this show; nothing to inspire teenagers or anyone else to join in. Fifty years on, much more effort needs to be made to place Hair in context and highlight its powerful message. ‘Let the Sun Shine In’ is not a happy clappy tune, it is a heart-rending plea from a generation that know that they have failed to stop the slaughter and hate.

Today’s hipsters are the successors to the hippies. From this production though, it seems that they have no other connection to the organisation and politics of the mass movement that inspired Hair. It should still be an immensely powerful work of protest but, here, it’s impact is diluted terribly. It deserves better.

Hair continues on tour. Visit www.hair50.com for dates and venues.