Unlike other critics, I don’t have multiple memories of watching the rock musical Hair. In fact, my only previous experience of the show was from watching the film as a teenager and I was so underwhelmed that I have actively shunned it for years. But after hearing great things about Jonathan O’Boyle’s 50th anniversary revamp at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, the transfer to the Vaults Theatre became a more appealing prospect.
And packed into the dingy bowels beneath Waterloo station I found a show full of life. Performed in a semi immersive manner – the audience surrounding the playing area frequently makes up part of the action – the musical is executed to perfection by an extremely talented young cast.
Hair follows a group of disillusioned young hippies in the late sixties, who are struggling with the prospect of being conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War. We are shown the moral battle of one in particular, Claude (played with an extraordinary subtly by Robert Metson) who – along with his tribe of peace-loving friends – expostulates the merits of going to war. Should he be a patriot (and honour his family) or stick to his own guns (if you’ll pardon the pun), burn his draft card and stay in America to protest for peace?
The story is really pretty flimsy and the effort to bring it up to date with some audio of recent politics doesn’t really fit. But it’s the music that’s the real winner in this show and with a fantastic band (led by Gareth Bretherton) filling the dungeon-like auditorium with soft-rock melodies, you feel as if you’re in a trendy club. Songs like “Aquarius” and “Let the Sun Shine In” are given a renewed energy by William Whelton’s electrifying choreography, which has elements of pastiche mixed with more modern movements to give an affectionate nod to previous incarnations.
And when it’s performed by the tremendous cast – with vigour and conviction – the result is an energetic and mesmerising musical treat.