Hair The Musical 50th year celebratory tour arrived in Edinburgh and tonight The Playhouse Theatre stage was transformed back in time to 1967 and a hippie ‘tribe' of young people in the East Village of New York. Over the many years since its original stage production I have heard much about Hair but never seen the show or the1979 film that it spawned, and I was expecting so much from this evening with the promise of the “Age of Aquarius” and of course the song “Aquarius” firmly embedded into my cultural psyche over the years, but sadly got so little to take away from it.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that I have simply left it far too late to see this show and on time’s straight highway, I am not standing at that 1967 time point and looking forward, but at the other end standing at 2019 and looking backwards over 50 years. Sadly, Hair The Musical is a fixed point in time that over the years has lost for me any original relevance or significance it perhaps once ever had and descended into nothing more than a few catchy songs. We have got older, grown up and matured a little (maybe) but Hair is still not only a child of 1967, but all too often a childish child of 1967.
To be fair though, a socially relevant musical for its time was always going to date badly in any revival 50 years on, but Hair has dated more than most of them because of two of its main themes – drugs and the Vietnam war. Adding to this problem is the fact that Hair is also a very American show with a counter culture and politics that often do not travel well either. It is a sad fact that nothing becomes history faster than contemporary politics and events, yet oddly this is where this show had to re-invent itself for a 21st century audience and, like its original “counter culture people”, completely missed the opportunity in front of them.
As you enter the theatre, a brightly coloured fabric curtain with anti-war slogans is across the stage. This rises to reveal our “community” to the voice-over of American Presidential names running backwards in time from Donald Trump (could any psychedelic trip ever have imagined an event as absurd as this happening?). For a moment I hoped that Hair had been updated as many of the core issues from 1967, War, Economics, Environment and Race are still here, but if anything even worse now in the 21st century. Here was an opportunity to make this show relevant to a young audience rather than present a history lesson, an opportunity missed.
Hair is an odd production; I was expecting something light and uplifting, but it is the opposite in many ways, often dark and depressing and there is far more “Hate and War” here at times than “Love and Peace”, but every time it looks like we are about to get some answers to this puzzle, get under the skins of our “tribe” a little and find out who they are and what is driving them as human beings, nothing happens and we are left with a disjointed, non-connective story line that becomes little more than a musical pastiche.
This production, as it should have, has a young and energetic cast, but I am finding it difficult to imagine what has drawn them to this project as even the dialogue of Hair now seems at times out of place when spoken to an audience 50 years on and in many cases 50 years older. Some of the scenes here would have undoubtedly been daring and “on the edge” in 1967, but now they are too often just childish or boring to watch. One scene though that I think few non Americans will grasp is the “American Flag” scene. We simply do not have that almost spiritual reverence for the national flag that so many Americans had then (and still do).
This production is really an ensemble one, and accompanied by a small live band on stage (discretely placed) they do a good job with some of the songs. The probably two best known songs from this show, the opening “Aquarius” and the penultimate “Let The Sun Shine In” are well performed, but all too often both the musical numbers are simply “shouty” with any emotion that was ever in their lyric being too often lost. The dialogue also suffers from too many instances of “shouty” for every emotion. This results in a production of one colour and not many coloured layers. It is also inescapable to note just how similar in music the big theatrical musicals of this time sound against one another.
Our cast here have little chance to shine through as the characters are so similar to one another, and the only one really given the opportunity to break through here is Paul Wilkins as Claude, and to be fair, he does a good job here as a young man trapped between two worlds in search of who he really is.
Oddly enough, for a show designed to be so open and free in mind to everything and everyone, there are moments here where Hair simply cannot escape its 1967 sensibilities and is deeply at odds with our contemporary viewpoint on many things and the way many people are spoken about.
If you like the music of the period, then you will probably like this show, because that is all that seems to be left of Hair, the music, but don’t listen too hard to some of the lyrics, you might find they are at odds with the melodies. The “Age of Aquarius” it seems was always destined to be over almost as soon as it started.
Review by Tom King