Hair review: brought thrillingly to life ★★★★

Tony Peters finds that 50 years on the messages in this musical have as much relevance as ever.

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Culture-wise, it was quite a year 1967: the first Monterey pop festival effectively kicked off the Summer of Love; the first issue of Rolling Stone magazine was published, giving the counter culture a real voice; the Beatles changed the face of popular music forever with the release of Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.

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And in an off Broadway theatre the first night of the musical Hair shook up the theatrical elite with its swearing, nudity, an anti-establishment stance against things like the Vietnam War, and promoting hippie ideals of free love and drug taking.

Its hard to believe it was all half a century ago, but there’s no doubt that the cultural shifts of the time have resonated down the years. And the barriers that Hair helped break down have led to more liberated theatre content.

So, well worth celebrating the shows’s 50th birthday, then, and this production does it with some considerable style.

The book has always been a bit of a hotch potch; a series of vignettes that promote those hippie ideals. One can’t argue with the sentiments, of course, and the pleas for tolerance over sexuality and diversity (long before diversity was even a thing) certainly have a relevance in today’s world. So relevant in fact that we could have done without the inevitable Trump reference shoehorned in to try and make the show’s message more contemporaneous.

That said, Robert Metson in the show’s central story of Claude, who suffers a crisis of conscience over whether to join the army and fight in Vietnam or burn his draft card and stick with the values of his friends, gives a nuanced and beautifully pitched performance.

Where the show really hits though is through the Galt MacDermot, James Rado and Gerome Ragni songs.

For those who only know this score through recordings, it has a whole new dimension when heard live. And it’s brought thrillingly to life here by the lush harmonies of an ensemble of quite outstanding voices and deeply effecting solos — one of my personal favourites, Frank Mills, performed by Kirsten Wright as Chrissy, is a real hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck moment. And the cast is backed by a knockout band under the musical direction of Gareth Bretherton.

With productions of this quality it’s usual to talk of West End tranfers. But while this cast would easily grace any larger venue, I do feel something would be lost in a proscenium arch theatre.

Director Jonathan O’Boyle and choreographer William Whelton’s superb staging fits The Vaults like a glove, and the blank canvas of the venue has allowed producer Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainments to create a completely immersive experience.

Here’s to the next 50.

Tony Peters

Hair is at The Vaults near Waterloo Station until 3 December

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Photograph by Claire Bilyard