REVIEW: HAIR (The Vaults) ★★★★★

Years before Dear Even Hansen, American Idiot, Spring Awakening and Rent spoke to a generation, Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical was unleashed upon the world.

This musical, with book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot, is a creature of 1960s counter culture and sexual revolution. When Hair premiered Off-Broadway in 1967, the musical’s depiction of the use of illegal drugs, bad language, treatment of gender, sexuality and nude scene caused much controversy. Parents were banning their kids from seeing the show and kids were trying to get their parents to see the show to understand them better. Touring productions around the world were met with protests and several countries either banned the show entirely or it’s cast recordings. Radicalising musical theatre. Hair broke new ground being the first ‘rock musical’ and defining this term, inviting audience onstage to partake and using a racially integrated cast.

Hair premiered on the West End at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1968 with a delayed opening night to allow for the abolition of theatre censorship in England under the Theatres Act of 1968. The show’s transfer to London would not have happened had it not been for the new Theatres Act which ended the Lord Chamberlain’s powers of censorship dating back to 1737. This original London cast included Paul Nicholas, Richard O’Brien and Tim Curry (who first met during this production) and a young Elaine Paige who has since admitted to being caught smoking a spiff on the roof of the Shaftesbury Theatre and getting fired from the production! To celebrate the show’s 50th Anniversary, the celebrated Hope Mill Theatre production has transferred to London to the fully immersive Off-West End Theatre, The Vaults.

An ensemble production, Hair tells the story of a ‘Tribe’ of young long-haired hippies of the ‘Age Of Aquarius’ living a bohemian life in New York City. Among the ‘Tribe’, we meet Claude, his good friend Berger, their roommate Sheila, besotted Jeanie and ambiguous Woof as they struggle to balance their lives of love and sexual revolution with the rebellion against war and a conservative society. As Jeanie puts it, “This is the way it is. I’m hung up on Claude. Sheila’s hung up on Berger. Berger is hung up everywhere. Claude is hung up on a cross over Sheila and Berger — and Woof is hung up on Berger.”

In this production at The Vaults, Robert Metson plays Claude, Andy Coxon is Berger, Laura Johnson as Sheila, Jessie May plays Jeanie, Liam Ross-Mills as Woof, Jammy Kasongo is Hud with Kirsten Wright playing Crissy, Natalie Green as Cassie, Patrick George playing Ritchie and Margaret Mead, Daniel Bailey as Lionel, Abiola Efunshile is Tia, Koryann Stevens plays Mary and Shekinah Mcfarlane as Dionne. As an ensemble, the cast are incredibly convincing as the ‘Tribe’. From the moment the audience walks into the performance space at The Vaults, a feeling of togetherness is felt. The cast sits calmly meditating, while their audience finds their seats around them. It was as if the audience had stumbled upon a group of hippies and were to be a fly on the wall for the next two hours. As the show progresses, the audience really gets the feeling this cast is not a group of actors but a family. This high-energy incredibly convincing performance as an ensemble really makes Hair a very rare and special production.

As Claude, Robert Metson shines. His controlled vocal is a delight throughout as he treats the audience to a combination of his straight-tone rock voice and musical theatre vibrato. His engaging performance really makes the audience emphasise with his struggle between resisting the draft or subsuming to societies expectation and serving in the war. Equally so, Andy Coxon embodies high school expelled Berger with skill. His performance of fast-paced patter ‘Donna’ at the top of the show is an early delight. Laura Johnson’s Sheila is very human and believable and the updated lyrics in Easy To Be Hard give her the ability to allow her impressive vocal and character driven performance to thrive. Woof has always been my favourite character in Hair and Liam Ross-Mills’s portrayal is richly colourful, subtle in part with a beautiful vocal bringing tears during his tercet, What A Piece Of Work Is Man. A resplendent performance.

Notable mention is given to Shekinah Mcfarlane’s smooth and rich vocal throughout including impressive turns leading Age Of Aquarius at the top of the show and Walking In Space during Act Two. Kirsten Wright’s Crissy solo Frank Mills was a delight and Patrick George as Margaret Mead telling the audience “I wish every mother and father in this theatre would go home and make a speech to their teenagers and say: kids, be free, no guilt, be whoever you are, do whatever you want, just as long as you don’t hurt anyone” was a very poignant moment towards the end of Act One.

From the moment I entered The Vaults, it’s as if I had stepped back in time to 1960s America. The audience is welcomed into an amazing grotto of by vivid colour, iconic artwork and hippie flower power. Before the show the audience is able to roam around this incense filled indoor festival featuring memorabilia and food stalls, a place to leave a message for the cast, themed drinks played to a soundtrack of psychedelic music. Maeve Black has put every detail into her design creating an atmosphere reminiscent of Woodstock and the psychedelic counter culture of 1960 America and I loved every minute of it!

Hair is a masterpiece of musical theatre, inspiring countless musicals and creatives in its wake and this production is just as affecting. Hair remains the exuberant, celebratory first rock musical in musical theatre history with many of its themes still relevant today. With a dizzyingly impressive immersive design and a young cast of truly believable actors, Hair at The Vaults is the definitive production and required theatre. So Let The Sun Shine In by joining the Tribe in the Age of Aquarius and see Hair at The Vaults today!

Reviewed by Stuart James
Photo: Claire Bilyard