Gerome Ragni and James Rado with music by Galt MacDermot
Aria Entertainment , Senbla and Hope Mill Theatre
Palace Theatre, Manchester
It has taken three years for this production of Hair, originally staged at Hope Mill in Ancoats, to travel less than a mile. The physical distance may be slight but the symbolism is massive. Cautious audiences might acknowledge Hope Mill as Manchester’s coolest venue but still regard it as edgy and fringe while the Palace is respectably mainstream. The production has been in London in the interim but the move to the Palace makes the status of Hope Mill as a major producing house undeniable.
Hair has a superb score but a paper-thin storyline; authors Gerome Ragni and James Rado concentrate on offering audiences salacious details of the hippie lifestyle rather than niceties like a plot. Often the authors settle for trying to shock with lyrics that are no more than lists of sexual terms or racial slurs. In the 1960s, a tribe of hippies in New York has two potential leaders. Charismatic Berger (Jake Quickenden) represents the hippie ideal—with little regard for materialism—but is also careless of the feelings of others and brutal in dismissing unwanted affection. Wannabe filmmaker Claude (Paul Wilkins) is more considerate but such a fantasist he imagines he was born in Manchester, England. Claude has mixed feelings about his duty to his country and his willingness to consider accepting conscription into the army puts him in conflict with the rest of the tribe.
Hair reflects disillusionment with the hippie ideal. It opens with the tribe blissfully proclaiming the dawning of the "Age of Aquarius" but ends with them on their knees desperately begging anyone to let the sunshine in. The famous nude scene that closes the first act is confrontational—representing the tribe acknowledging one of their members does not share their values rather than shaking off out of date inhibitions.
Director Jonathan O’Boyle strives to emphasise the relevancy of the musical with a sombre opening in which the cast confront the audience while the noise of military helicopters and broadcasts from gobshite politicians like Donald Trump fill the theatre. The move towards current relevancy is at odds with a production in which the sexual and social politics are definitely set in the past—the only gay member of the tribe is ashamed of his sexuality.
O’Boyle and designer Maeve Black are clearly delighted to have a larger canvas upon which to stage the musical. Black takes literally the description of the hippies as a ‘tribe’ and sets the action in a multi-coloured tepee. Ominously, however, the burning oilcans used by the tribe bring to mind picket lines or the 1930s recession. In a nice hometown touch, the dance routine for "Manchester, England" features umbrellas and chorus with a hint of a football chant.
Ragni and Rado chose to tell the story largely through song lyrics rather than a formal narrative. O’Boyle embraces this approach for a high-energy, energetic production that barely pauses for breath. The cast are determined to maintain the intimacy of the original venue and regularly spill off-stage to involve the audience. Indeed the show ends with a full-on stage invasion and the audience invited to join the cast for a final dance. The larger scale is, however, not always advantageous. At Hope Mill, the entire second act was a nightmarish drug trip gone horribly wrong; such consistency and intensity is not possible with the more fragmented approach in the current production.
Hair does not really have lead roles. Pretty much all of the cast get a solo number; so the ensemble really make an impact and vocals by Aiesha Pease are outstanding. Jake Quickenden takes a curiously camp approach making Berger a kind of ‘holy fool’ that undermines the danger of charismatic leaders who can turn out like Manson or Blair.
Although fifty years old, the breakneck pace of the current production ensures Hair does not show its age and, if nothing else, should persuade patrons to take the chance to try out the other shows on offer at Hope Mill just down the road.