Hair at New Wimbledon Theatre
Despite its notoriety, Jonathan O’Boyle has lathered the 50th anniversary production of Hair with a superficial approach that incorporates those two negative elements that have damaged the artistic credibility of the musical theatre genre: facile acting performances and clamorous singing solely interested in showcasing vocal histrionics. Such a simplistic decision results in problem after problem.
In fairness, the issues have begun before the curtain rises. With the production’s marketing, Jake Quickenden (Berger) and Daisy Wood Davis (Sheila) are depicted on the poster in a sultry embrace. Yet the main dilemma in the narrative is Claude’s (Paul Wilkins) struggle between his patriotic desire to accept his draft to the Vietnam War and the pacifistic philosophies of the hippy counter-culture movement. Mind you, there is no chance of following the plot anyway as all songs are performed with such a deafening volume it’s hard to discern many of the lyrics.
The next problem is the show’s presentation of the hippy movement itself. Firstly, the audience would have no idea that this group congregates in the natural environment of New York’s central park because of Maeve Black’s pristine costumes and the gaudily coloured strips of fabrics plastered around the walls of the set. Secondly, the artificial acting approach sends up a well-meaning counter-culture group, particularly through Quickenden’s incongruously camp interpretation of Berger, as vain, sex-obsessed layabouts who go childishly giddy over pot and Mick Jagger.
Not only is the hippy movement caricatured. Criticism of Diane Paulus’s 2009 Broadway revival of Hair mentioned the musical’s “hackneyed depiction of black masculinity”, but this production exposes the stereotyped approach Gerome Ragni and James Rado take to representing many racial and cultural groups, most uncomfortably apparent in the “comically” affected Far East Asian accents used to represent Buddhist monks in the number Give Up All Desires. It borders on hypocrisy that Hair uses the opening number, Aquarius, to make links between the show’s original criticism of Lyndon B Johnson’s intervention in Vietnam and current president Trump when it plays on such crass racial stereotypes.
There is no denying the songs are infectiously catchy. Gareth Bretherton keeps the band and cast tightly in time and tune throughout, particularly in the rousing a capella powerhouse of Let the Sun Shine In. But this anniversary celebration focuses too much on the glamour of performance rather than the grit of one of the most significant movements in American cultural history.
Photo: Johan Persson
Hair is at New Wimbledon Theatre from 21st until 30th March 2019 before continuing on its UK tour. For further information about venues and dates visit the show’s website here.