That ground-breaking hippy happy musical Hair is now a demi-centenarian! It first hit the stage in New York (off-Broadway) in 1967 before smashing it all over the world, including becoming the first new show to open in London after the withdrawal of stage censorship in September 1968. As an aside, gentle reader, I shall be saluting the fiftieth anniversary of the end of British theatre censorship next year with a series of posts on the subject – it’s something I studied closely as a postgrad many decades ago and it’s high time my research was unleashed onto an unsuspecting world. So please watch out for that next year!
Meanwhile this year… my good friend and local co-blogging reviewer, Mr Smallmind, nipped up to Manchester last November to see this production of Hair at its birthplace, the Hope Mill Theatre, and he loved it; as a result, I’ve been looking forward to seeing it ever since. I’ve always had a fondness for the show, not only because of its significance in the history of theatre censorship, but also because it’s jam-packed with brilliant songs. We saw the 2010 revival in London – which for some inexplicable reason, I didn’t review – and enjoyed it, but I remember that it didn’t quite soar. Surely this 50th anniversary production would deliver in spades where the earlier one just slightly played it safe.
So here we come to one of the most awkward reviews I’ve ever had to write. You’ve heard of a Tale of Two Cities, or a game of two halves? Let me introduce you to the story of The Tale of Two Audiences. I’d not been to The Vaults before, and I must say, first impressions were very favourable. They’ve decked out the bar and reception area in all sorts of psychedelic paraphernalia; chill-out zones, groovy coloured fabrics, listening to fab tunes like Traffic’s Hole in My Shoe and the Lemon Pipers’ Green Tambourine… it couldn’t have been more delightfully 60s. Evocative retro posters lined the walls; it was so effective we could have been raided for evidence for the Oz obscenity trials.
So why two audiences? The Vaults doesn’t have a proper ticketing system that allows them to allocate seat numbers to its customers. Instead you choose an area of the auditorium, designated by a colour and its own seat price, and then it’s a free-for-all when you get in to get the best seats in your colour zone. I’ve always taken it as a rule of thumb that the higher the price, the better the seat, the better the view. Seems to make sense to me. There are two rows of seats either side of the stage area, seated in traverse – the red seats. Facing the stage in the traditional layout, you have the front two rows (yellow seats) then the next six rows were the green seats (top price) and the back row was the blue seats (cheapest price). Not knowing any better, we booked green and ended up in the fifth row from the stage, farthest left. If they’d allocated seat numbers, they would have been E 1 & 2.
What a terribly poor decision that was on my part. The whole show is designed to be played to the red seats, as that was the prime layout at the Hope Mill Theatre. If you’re in the red seats, you enjoy great interactivity between the cast and the audience. You could see how the people in the front red rows simply beamed with nonstop pleasure throughout. The people in the second row of the reds don’t get such a good deal because, bizarrely, their seats weren’t raised. The people in the front row of the yellow seats would also have been able to see everything that went on. They also came in for their fair share of interaction from the cast. However, everyone else was, frankly, ignored. Additionally, the rake of the green seats, whilst in itself effective, meant that you could not see the front quarter of the stage at all. We spent the entire show being surprised when a member of the cast suddenly popped up from our end of the stage to perform – and we had no idea anyone was there.
As I watched the finale where everyone in the red seats jumps up and dances with the cast, I felt like I was eavesdropping at a party where I hadn’t been invited but could still see everyone else enjoying themselves. I felt so excluded, and it was a really depressing feeling. And, in case you think I’m being over-sensitive, you only had to watch the different ways in which the audience reacted at curtain-call time. Everyone in the red seats leaped up for a standing ovation within about one second of its finishing. Everyone else sat, and gave muted, polite applause, and not for too long. My advice is – whatever you do – DON’T BUY GREEN. It’s a total waste of money. BUY RED; or maybe if the cost is an issue – buy yellow. And make sure you sit in the front rows of those colour codes. I certainly won’t be going back to the Vaults unless and until they change their system, so they can allocate individual seats to individual customers. The current system is way too unreliable. I know it’s regarded as a fringe venue, so you might expect a bit of pot luck and give and take on where you sit; but they’re not charging fringe venue prices. £55 for a seat in the green area is £10 more than we spent earlier that afternoon for a sumptuous centre Row E seat at the Olivier. I simply expected more for my money.
There were some very good performances; Andy Coxon’s Berger is a decadent, rather sexually ambivalent chap, full of mischief and all out for the pursuit of personal pleasure. Robert Metson’s Claude is a natural leader, charismatic and likeable. Shekinah McFarlane is superb as Dionne; I particularly loved her performance of White Boys, which gave me goose bumps, just like the lyrics suggest. I loved Laura Johnson as Sheila, reminding me what a beautiful song Easy to be Hard is, and Jammy Kasongo is a very high impact Hud who seems to be sadly under-utilised after the first twenty minutes or so.
Hair was, of course, always notorious for its ability to shock. When I saw it in 2010 I remember thinking that the burning of the draft cards was much more shocking than the nudity, which was tasteful, decorous and in the dark. In this production, the draft card burning scene had absolutely no impact on me whatsoever. As far as the nudity is concerned, I think it should either be no holds barred and in your face, or totally subtle and nuanced. Here, the cast members gradually undressed in near-darkness but then the act ended with a tableau of stark lighting for about three seconds of full-frontals then blackout. It felt like it was staged simply to prove that they had definitely got naked, but I got no sense of the purpose for the nudity. They weren’t doing naked hippy dancing for the sheer fun of it; and if it was meant to represent a naked protest, well that didn’t come across either.
But my opinion of the show is very badly affected by the fact that I felt like a spare prick at a wedding. I was so estranged from the performance that all I really felt was that it was a great opportunity wasted, and it wasn’t until sometime the following afternoon that my miserable mood lifted. A show shouldn’t do that to you. A five-star production destroyed by a one-star experience.