Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Hair – The Vaults

It’s always a very different experience seeing a show on stage for the first time that you already know inside out. And Hair, for me, wasn’t just the usual case of being able to sing the entire soundtrack inside out.

Having performed in a local (at the time) amateur production of Hair a few years ago, I didn’t just pre-empt every word before it had been sung, but traced our own movements across the space during each song, remembering how the weight of my limbs felt during each beat of rhythm, and associating indistinct nostalgia with each scene.

Whether your experience of Hair is from the soundtrack, from watching a past production or performing it yourself, it’s a show that’s power stays with you. Though its eclectic mix of individual scenes sing louder than the vague whisper of plot, the nature of the show’s setting and array of issues raised guarantee an emotional punch, even if you fail to be moved by the principal narrative strand.

Hair may only spend fleeting moments on each of the rather large questions it raises, but Jonathan O’Boyle’s production does so unapologetically, embracing the chaotic original structure comprised of individuals telling their stories and, through their protests, championing diversity and love over the destruction and discrimination.

Hair fits irrefutably well into the setting of The Vaults, as if the act of a theatre existing in an archway beneath Waterloo station is a rebellion in itself. A lot of effort has been put into making the whole experience immersive, from the corridors decked in protest posters to the slightly gimmicky hippie bar area. The performance space, however, is breathtaking, with coloured streamers hanging from every spare inch of the walls and ceiling.

The production begins with a distorted recording of a Trump speech, not in an attempt to recontextualise the musical into a modern era, but to highlight the significance of so many of the show’s messages, even these decades later. As we are plunged straight back into the sixties, the biggest challenge of this show, or in fact any modern production of Hair, is disconnecting the very notion of hippies from the flower power caricature that has enveloped the term in popular culture.

As notions of Hair, its previously rebellious scenes and some of its well-known songs have transcended into misunderstood clichés over time, it is almost impossible to disengage with such associations completely. This production’s success in overcoming the obstacle ultimately comes down to the dedication and conviction of the cast. Although Hair is very much an ensemble piece, no member of this cast carries themselves as an ensemble figure, even when positioned in the background of a scene. The depth and layers that are carved into even those without any verbal story are evident right through to the subtlest of movements.

Each member of the cast is present on stage for the entirety of the performance, and with the level of defiant energy committed by all, there are no obvious stars of this show. However, special mentions must go to Jessie May’s characterisation of Jeanie and Laura Johnson’s moving vocals as Sheila.

With the chopping and changing structure of Hair and the sheer volume of musical numbers and contrasting styles of music, William Whelton’s choreography does well to create a natural sense of fluidity, with each movement and scene leaking into the next. This is not the predictable hand waving of a bunch of hippies on acid, but tiers of intricate motions that surge beneath the protests, often subverting expectations and the natural direction of the music.

Whether my existing love for Hair clouds my judgement of this production is hard to say, although part of me was jealous of those experiencing the show for the first time. What remains undeniable is the pure passion and infectious spirit of the cast.

Unfortunately for those of you who didn’t get to witness this wonderful piece of theatre, Hair is closing on 13th January, and is well-deservedly sold out for the remainder of its run.


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