Wednesday, May 05, 2010

'Hair' at the Gieldgud Theatre.

‘I can’t understand the words’, said my companion, halfway through a frenetic matinee at The Gielgud Theatre last week. The programme described the show as 'an ecstatic rock musical'. We were enjoying an interval respite from the noise and eating frozen yogurt in Berwick Street.

‘It’s not Andrew Lloyd Webber. The words don’t matter.’

Well, the words didn’t matter to whoever rehearsed the show's chorus – or ‘Tribe’, as they are called in the programme. The solos, mostly shrieked, weren’t much better. Of the 40 songs only two are still recognised - ‘Aquarius’, which never made much sense and ‘I got my Life’, ruined by association with TV Yogurt ads. The best song, and the only one where you can make out the lyrics, was written by Shakespeare, as a speech called ‘What a piece of work is man.’, here converted into a decent anti-war ballad.

This was almost the only genuinely moving part of the show, in contrast with the ear-splitting delivery of the rest. The young cast are unmistakably enthusiastic. There was a quite a bit of invasion of the audience, of the kind that makes you glad you didn’t sit too near the front. People around me were good-natured but nervous.

Unlike my companion I was happy enough to identify a parade of sixties themes: free love, pot smoking, racial prejudice, male display, anticommunism, street protests, the atom bomb, Eastern religions and the rejection of education and domesticity. A story of sorts emerged: a young man, his best pal and their girl friends drop out of middle class suburban lifestyles to live with a group similarly rebellious young people. Then one of them is drafted and sent to Vietnam, which brings everything to an end.

‘Hair’ seemed irrelevant here even when it first arrived from Broadway, in 1968. The pill had popularised unmarried sex in the early sixties in England. Although we might deplore the war in Vietnam: ' white people sending black people to fight yellow people for those who stole it from the red people’, as one of the characters puts it, nobody mentioned a ‘special relationship’ back then. The show’s big draw was nudity onstage, recently allowed by the abolition of the Lord Chamerlain's role in censoring theatre.

Rado and Ragni's show was a hit in London then; 'Time Out' named it last week as London's top musical. I didn't see it first time round, so it was a good opportunity, being tied up at the time with amateur drama and motherhood in Penge, so this seemed a good opportunity to see what I'd been missing.

The programme says that this version, which is not the first revival, has been updated, but unless you remember the original it’s not always clear where. There’s an 'ad-lib' stand-up comedy at the beginning performed by one of the characters, and ‘contemporary’ references, such as Roman Polanski’s name called out at random moments. Comedy scenes, like the one with the hero’s stereotyped suburban parents and another with a conventional middle aged couple apparently plucked from the audience were so inept as to be embarrassing. They were not so annoying, however, as the audience ‘plants’ who made their raucous presence felt in the second half and who led the orchestrated ‘standing ovation’.

The single funny line is made by the hero’s father. When his son expresses the wish for a change of nationality, in a song called ‘Manchester, England’, he says, ‘Face it, you’re Polish!’.

For all the supposed boldness of songs like ‘Sodomy’ which nowadays sounds just like a childish list of rude words, nudity is underplayed, making a brief appearance just before the interval. The cast move towards the back of the stage, the lights are lowered and they drift off to reappear and stand without clothes. It’s like an old-fashioned Music Hall tableau, all done in the best possible taste.

‘Hair’ reminds me of all those ‘I love you, Dad’ scenes in American movies. As we sneaked out of the theatre, not tempted to join the cast onstage, I was feeling not so much ecstatic as old. In fact, I felt something like the Duchess of Malfi when the madmen ceased their torments. And I had to agree after all that we should at least have been able to understood the words.

'Hair' at The Gielgud Theatre:

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