Hair

Book and Lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, Music by Galt MacDermot
Gate Theatre, Notting Hill
(2005)

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Young director Daniel Kramer has pulled off something of a coup with his updated version of Hair. Somehow, he has managed to make the archetypal hippy musical of the 1960s speak to a contemporary audience without losing the spirit of the original.

The opening is timely, as the war protests about Vietnam depicted in the original have been replaced by identical outpourings of anguish about the presence in Iraq. These have culminated in significant demonstrations in London and Washington on the day that the opening-night glitterati (including poor Jerry Hall, the butt of several on-stage jokes) will have been nursing their party hangovers.

Kramer solves his first problem of how to get a full-scale musical into a tiny black box by staging it longways. This means that the audience is only two rows deep but stretches along the length of the theatre. The only penalty for this is a cricked neck for anyone seated at one end or other.

Suddenly, the 16-strong cast has plenty of room in which to play, sing and dance. The weave their way in and out of attractive curtains designed by Soutra Gilmour that create an appropriate atmosphere of mysticism.

The look is enhanced by Penelope Challen's colourful costumes and 16 weird and wonderful hair designs from Vidal Sassoon's studio which vary from punk-bright to Mohican and in the case of the main protagonist Claude, played by Charles Aitken, a soft, blonde perm.

The singers are accompanied by a four-piece rock band that reproduces the original music with a heavier, modern bass beat. On occasions this can be intrusive but much of the time, enhances songs such as the title song.

Claude Bukowski is a disenchanted young man who has all of the overtones and some of the speech of Hamlet. His friends mix in a community like Andy Warhol's Factory. Almost all are involved in long chains of unrequited love that are both fuelled and calmed by chemicals. The boys are primarily gay and some of the girls androgynous but regardless of sexual adventurousness, they all have a strong code of ethics.

They want to make love not war and even the appearance of everybody's favourite president, George Dubya Bush with his flag-waving acolytes, does nothing to persuade them that the invasion of Iraq was justified.

The real surprise though it is when Claude, under parental pressure, announces that he wants to find himself by joining the Army. His friends can hardly believe this and much of the play consists of their efforts to persuade him that there is a real life to be enjoyed in modern-day America.

The slightly uncertain scene-setting early stages give way to a lengthy, post-interval druggy dream that leads to horror but then a beautifully realised final image.

This production always looks great and often sounds almost as good. In particular, Golda Rosheuvel who plays Hud knows how to sing the blues, while Joanne Ampil as Sheila, the girl that Claude would like to steal from his friend Kevin Wathen's Berger, has a gorgeous velvety voice. This is heard at its best in Good Morning Starshine, one of several timeless classics from the musical.

Hair 2005 may have some rough edges but it is generally a real pleasure, primarily due to the tremendous life-affirming energy and enthusiasm of the remarkably young cast. In addition, Daniel Kramer's take on young people's vision USA today is often amusing and can be perceptive too.

It is going to be hard to get tickets with a house containing only 65 seats but there must be a strong possibility that like Thea Sharrock's wonderful Tejas Verdes, Hair might have an opportunity to enjoy an extended run.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher