Hair, The Vaults, London, review: A full-throttle production

Holly Williams
Robert Metson as Claude and Andy Coxon as Berger in 'Hair The Musical' at The Vaults: Claire Bilyard

This spirited 50th anniversary production of the original rock musical is a small-scale production that punches well above its weight. But does it capture the spirit of the Sixties? I’m not so sure.

The Vaults is turned into an immersive space – and while the campaign starts here to stop calling something ‘immersive’ when you actually mean ‘themed bar’, it’s done well, a groovy tie-dye hang-out with teepees and toadstools. Even better is the performance space under an arch, entirely covered with rainbow streamers: a kaleidoscopic reinvention of a dank fringe venue.

A cast of 14 feels masses bigger, and they’re top quality – both the singing and dancing, under Jonathan O’Boyle’s assured, ballsy direction, are spot on. There’s a slickness that’s maintained despite the totally frenetic pace: Hair bombards you with sex and drugs and rock’n’roll – as well as, courtesy of a tight band, psych rock, funk, soul, rhythm’n’blues… even country, gospel and 50s-style crooners get effectively pastiched in Galt MacDemrot’s leapfrogging but enjoyably bouncy score.

If it can be a bit much, that’s more the fault of Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s musical than this full-throttle production. Most songs only seem to last about a minute, then whoosh, you’re on to the next. Although we’re whirlingly introduced to the ‘tribe’, only two characters – Berger and Claude – are really delineated; the show particularly shows its age in relegating most of the female characters’ songs to being about digging certain dudes.

The plot, such as it is, is that a bunch of hippie drop-outs in New York are being getting high and protesting Vietnam, when one of their number – Claude – gets the draft. Will he go? Around him swirls a maelstrom of couplings and arguments and hallucinations, songs protesting war and segregation, and hymning freedom and free love. There’s a lot of exaggerated smoking of joints, writhing around on the floor, and a bit of nudity.

But it feels like doing Hair in 2017 presents a conundrum this production hasn’t entirely solved. You sort of have to go big – and this certainly is. Fast, loud, brash, the cast get in the audience’s face but pull it off with real aplomb and abandon. Performances are huge, and pretty camp; it’s a bright rainbow version of the Sixties.

Yet it’s also a cartoon rainbow: you never believe any of them are real people, never believe that anyone quite lived like this. This is always likely to be a problem given the cultural signifiers of the era are now so set, so recognisable, so mocked – can you groove onstage with long hair and flares and beads, and be read as ‘real’? Or will you always seem a cliché?

Still, it feels like O’Boyle could counter this, trying to find a little tenderness or genuine human connection, whereas instead the show embraces psychedelic mania. Admittedly, Ragni and Rado don’t really do subtlety, and there isn’t much characterisation to work with. But it’s as if the underwriting is offset with over-performing; even Andy Coxon and Robert Metson, fun as they are as the leads, never really settle into Berger and Claude.

So, this Hair may fail to find much truth in all the pot smoke and flower power. But it is also a burstingly big-hearted production, and still proves quite a trip.

‘Hair’ is at The Vaults till 13 January