BWW Review: HAIR THE MUSICAL, The Vaults
Perhaps, rather like those who wore flowers in their hair on Haight Ashbury in 1967, my expectations of what might be achieved by The Tribe were too high, making the consequent disappointment with how things turned out all the sharper. Though I'm not about to spend subsequent decades voting Republican (as, one assumes, many old hippies do), I couldn't wait to let the sun, or the streetlights of Waterloo, shine in and the doors of the theatre, if not the doors of perception, be opened at last.
We start with audio clips of the Iraq War and the inauguration of Donald Trump to remind us that the mass paranoia that drives American adventurism is as threateningly alive in the age of President Orange as it was in the age of Agent Orange - though the iconography of the hippy movement (or even Hair itself, a show that fully deserves the descriptor "legendary") is plenty enough to tell us where we are in time and in politics.
And, for me, that cultural space turned out to be as discomfiting as the physical space, the most airless three hours I have ever spent in ill-upholstered seat (and, after about 1,000 reviews of fringe shows, I can tell you that The Vaults has beaten off some fairly fierce competition for that dubious accolade).
The show itself is less a conventional narrative and more a series of songs, its structure more revue than musical. There's the bubbling bromance between alpha males Berger (Andy Coxon, shirtless and strutting) and Claude (Robert Metson, shirtless and stumbling into the Draft - without a bone spur to stand on), the background against which The Tribe pop and fizz with the relentless political and sexual energy granted by youth and drugs.
It's a thin and, these days, predictable storyline on which to hang a near-three-hour show - but that was still insufficient time to develop much in the way of characters. The women are painfully underwritten and one feels for Laura Johnson, who sings beautifully as Sheila, the hippy chick seemingly joined at the hip to both Berger and Claude, but that triangular relationship pretty much defined her - a radical doormat, if you will.
Jeanie (Jessie May) is pregnant and in love with Claude and... and that's about it for her. Woof (Liam Ross Mills) is struggling to come out of the closet and has a Mick Jagger thing - and that's about it for him too. There's some uncomfortable ethnic stereotyping to get through that may be of its time and/or satirical, but those old excuses get less and less sustainable as mores move on.
There's a chance that I'm misunderstanding the intentions of director Jonathan O'Boyle, who surely would not want to elicit such negative feelings in someone so sympathetic to the scene depicted, but - in an admittedly difficult space for acoustics - I could catch so few of the lyrics (save the numbers that we all know, like "Aquarius", "Hair", "Good Morning Starshine") that the dynamics of the relationships were lost on me.
Berger's arrogance was unleavened by any empathy with Claude's literally incredible psychological schism between his commitment to The Tribe and his desire to serve his country in 'Nam. Coxon has the presence required of a leading man, but his character starts off as a boor and becomes a bore long before everything suddenly changes for the incongruous singalong "Let the sun shine in" bolted on to close the show. on a happy note.
As is also the case with Claude, Berger is a tough role to play, as bucketloads of charisma are required to overcome the self-centred nature of the character and allow us to enjoy his leadership for an entire evening. Had Sheila led a putsch (as she might have done ten years later), we'd all have been better off.
With rock musicals, one accepts that some words will be lost below the bass, guitar and drums, but hearing so few clearly does leave me with the feeling of having been at a banquet and been offered only the hors d'oeuvres.
Likewise, gender and racial politics are a matter of opinion, but treating female and black characters like this is just poor drama regardless of one's stance towards the tiresome debate on contemporary political correctness and its role in interpreting classic works of theatre. Jammy Kasongo and Shekinah McFarlane (both excellent) deserved much more than this.
Songs (there are a lot of them) and spectacle - though a lengthy dream sequence is up there with time travel as a bit of a writer's cheat for me - may carry the day for many new to the show or those who, contrary to the well worn saying, can remember it from the Sixties. And it is definitely a show on any musical theatre fan's bucket list - you have to see it even if it disappoints.
And if you do feel compelled to attend, I'd advise going to the "clothing optional" performance - at least you might have something to do when Berger is declaiming the cause of freedom - his freedom - yet again.