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New Theater Oxford

Oh, dear! I am having real trouble analysing this new production of the iconic musical Hair. Partly that is because I am very familiar with the material and felt a bit jarred by some of the new approaches to some of the songs, I guess. Yet, with some quibbles, I enjoyed it a lot. For me the cast seemed to represent perfectly exactly what the show is about – a community of integrated, raucous and energetic young people who are a kind of tribe or team working, singing and dancing together with animation and spirit; all the while hinting at rebellion and searching for new ways of living and understanding the world. Sexy, talented, foul-mouthed at times; and all with very good voices and dancing movements; well-drilled, appealing, charming. The choreography by William Whelton was lively and perfectly integrated into selling the songs and telling of the story. The set and costumes by Maeve Black looked good, and evoked a tribal evening in Washington Square or a flat in Greenwich Village in New York in the 1960s, in the era of flower power. The songs and the anti-Vietnam aspect of the show certainly remind you that you are in 1967, and on the whole I quite liked the new arrangements by Gareth Bretherton.

You can also easily make connections to what is going on politically today and how it will affect the young of our era and tomorrow. It is therefore mildly redundant and unnecessary that during the opening Aquarius number reference is made to Trump and Bush and Nixon and other Republican Presidents and, I guess, people who took the USA into war. Perhaps because it was the opening night of a show that is on tour that the cast was, in the first half anyway, not quite comfortable with what they were doing in new surroundings. They were working hard and not missing a beat; and all of the vocals seemed to me spot on and sometimes quite dazzling. So I cannot pinpoint anything wrong. Just that despite loving all the familiar numbers and admiring the sheer talent on stage (including the musicians who were not only visible but also involved at times), somehow the performance did not quite jell for me into a whole before the interval. The famous scene where everyone takes off his or her clothes was definitely done in such dim lighting and so far back on the stage that it had much less of the impact of the last few productions of this musical that I have seen. (The most stark, original and in-your-face version was certainly at the Gate in Notting Hill where the theatre is so small and the actors are so close to you that, as someone said at the time, if you stuck out a finger or a tongue during the orgy you could participate.)

That said, I have to praise everyone in the cast. Space makes me single out Jake Quickenden first. He makes a strong impression as a narcissistic, camp Berger with a fine physique, a very good voice and an undercurrent that is somehow darker than usual as the leader of this tribe of young rebels. Paul Wilkins centres the show and is its pivot as Claude. His voice is superb and his acting made him the one character in the show that you really cared about and could follow as a developing, troubled character questioning received opinion . I now want to see him do Shakespeare or a classic Rodgers and Hammerstein show. Aiesha Pease and Kelly Sweeney also made strong impressions, as did Bradley Judge as Woof, Marcus Collins as Hud and Tom Bales as Margaret Mead. I feel terrible not praising every single one of these performers, they were all so strong and talented, every one.

I was also reminded how clever the lyrics are and what a good score Hair has. Most of the songs are memorable and all make a point and advance the show’s development. The second half was stronger than the first on the night I attended; and when it got to the problem of Berger and whether or not he should give in to the draft and go to Vietnam, the drama began to emerge clearly and become really interesting. The uplift and poignancy of the last song, a reprise of “Let the Sun Shine In” pulled the whole evening together; and the audience loved being invited up onto the stage to dance with the cast, or standing at their seats and bopping along, in the extended post-curtain-calls sequence.

There seemed to me to be somewhat less clarity in the story than I remember from before, especially at the end. Nevertheless, it is a real treat to watch this strong and committed cast do their numbers. The through-composed non-stop way the show progresses simply pulls you through it willy-nilly; and the sense of the hippie life of the times is suggested, though perhaps without enough sense of the rebelliousness and the cheeky breaking of verbal and other taboos that made the show such a breakthrough event in its day and, of course, the first real rock musical. Hair was the inspiration and template for a lot of rock music theatre that has followed and was, of course, historic in coming in to London just after the final removal of the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship.

The show is touring extensively.

  • Mime Theatre
  • Book and Lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado
  • Music by Galt MacDermot
  • Directed by Jonathan O’Boyle
  • Choreography by William Whelton
  • Produced by Aria Entertainment, Senbla and Hope Mill Theatre
  • Cast includes: Jake Quickenden, Paul Wilkins, Daisy wood-Davis, Marcus Collins, Alesha Pease, Alison Arnopp
  • New Theater Oxford
  • In Oxford until 29 June 2019; touring

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Canadian-born Mel Cooper first came to the UK to study English Literature at Oxford University and stayed. He was captivated by the culture and history of Britain, which he found to be a welcoming and tolerant country. After working in highly illustrated, non-fiction publishing for over a decade, he founded and edited the magazine Opera Now. Since then he has worked as a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting, a maker of audio shows and arts critic for several airlines, and as one of the team that started Britain’s first commercial classical music radio station, Classic FM, on which he was both a classical music DJ and creator and presenter of shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. Throughout this period, he also lectured in music and literature in London and Oxford and published short stories in Canada. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature. His first novel has just been published as an e-book. The title is City of Dreams. It is the first volume of a projected saga called The Dream Bearers. You can find the Kindle version of the book on Amazon.

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