Hair – Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

hps-003Hair continues at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester until 3 December.

Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩

Viewed 49 years after it first blasted onto the Off-Broadway stage in a waft of illicit cigarette smoke and body parts, Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot’s counterculture rallying cry is probably more significant for what it represents rather than its contents.

What was shocking in 1967 now seems rather mild – quaint even – but at the time musical theatre didn’t know what hit it. The original production may have set its sights on the Vietnam War-prolonging US government but its biggest impact was in almost singlehandedly inventing the rock musical genre, beating the likes of Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar to the punch by a good few years.

Hope Mill Theatre and Aria Entertainment’s enjoyably raucous production – well-drilled in the form of William Whelton’s tightly focused Pan’s People-ish choreography but suitably loosey goosey in the movement by director Jonathan O’Boyle of the 12-strong ensemble around it – embraces the show for what it is, an unashamedly off-its-time period piece.

In fact the only shocks come from the racial epithets that pepper its most notorious song (‘Coloured Spade’) and the purposely crude national stereotypes presented in the hallucinatory Vietnam-set Act II song cycle, with some Asian accents on display that would give Mickey Rooney’s offensively bucktoothed turn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s a run for its money.

But to pare back such elements would unravel a show that is less of a formally structured musical and more of a musical collage, or ‘happening’.

Because, for those that haven’t seen the show for a while, or are more familiar with Milos Forman’s more narratively fleshed out 1979 film, the other slight surprise is how little plot there is.

The dilemma of nominal ringleader Claude (a charismatic Robert Metson) on whether to join the draft or continue hanging out with his New York hippy commune buddies, while various love triangles and quadrangles play out around him, is basically as far as it goes story-wise. Which means that it is down to the cast to breathe life into their lightly drawn roles, deliver on the show’s infectiously catchy songs – all 40 of them – and ride on the atmosphere ably created by designer Maeve Black in the room. All of which it does effortlessly.

Vocally the cast is at its best in the big all-encompassing chorus numbers, with ‘Aquarius’ and ‘Where Do I Go?’ enveloping the intimately seated, in-the-round audience with their collective soul-stirring power, accentuated by musical director Gareth Bretherton’s funky, laidback arrangements and a tight, five-piece band.

It is the female cast members that connect best individually, with Laura Johnson’s Sheila wringing maximum emotion from the plaintive ‘Easy to Be Hard’ and Kirsten Wright delivering a touching performance as the lovelorn Crissy.

But by the time it gets to the climactic, unfetteredly joyous blast that is Hippie Life the ‘tribe’ is once again cohering as one and the audience needs little persuasion to get to its feet and cut a rug alongside them. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to let the sunshine in.

Chris Bartlett

Manchester’s Three Mill Theatre reveals trio of musicals for 2017 – News

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