Paul Wilkins as Claude with the cast. Pictures: Johan Persson

Hair – The Musical

The Alexandra Theatre


It creates strange emotions to sit and watch your youth, or at least its offspring, unfold on stage with songs and moments opening up forgotten doors in the mind.

Those on stage were acting, but we did it. We wore kaftans, and bell bottoms, and headbands, loose cotton trousers, and faded, ripped jeans – sorry, youngsters but you are half a century late.

And we marched against Vietnam, a war that cost America almost 60,000 lives – a mounting toll recorded nightly on TV news, while three million Vietnamese died. It was an emotive time. I was in Grosvenor Square in March 1968, reporting for a student newspaper, as mounted police charged anti-war demonstrators outside the US Embassy - six months before Hair was to open in the West End. Ho-Ho-Ho-Chi Minh!

Youth, and in particular hippies, had become a movement, a generation calling for world peace, for equality, for an end to poverty, saving the planet, demanding a fairer world – ironic that it was also the generation that was to give us the worst financial crisis since 1929, an ever widening gap between rich and poor, growing poverty, polluted oceans, global warming and wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, the Balkans . . . the list goes on.

Hair is very much a musical of its time. This production marking the 50th anniversary of its West End opening, is packed with energy and vitality and some great songs which have stood the test of time, and, looking at many of the opening night audience, it has created an evening of joyous nostalgia.

The musical was was first conceived by actors James Rado and Gerome Ragni who lived and worked in the East Village in New York, a place where hippies hung out, back in 1964. They decided to record not just a lifestyle for posterity, but a movement. Hair finally reached the stage, off Broadway in 1967.

And it is firmly set in that era. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria are terrible events, but have never had the emotive pull, or the losses of Vietnam, nor did it have hordes of American youth trying to dodge a draft (conscription) that brought a good chance of death, injury or PTSD.

It was a time of herbal cigarettes – marijuana is a plant after all - smoking the likes of Moroccan Gold or Red Leb. The 1960s saw not just free love, but a sexual revolution encouraged by the introduction of the pill,  people lived in communes and the young took over music and fashion. If you want a taste of what life was like back then, watch the film of Woodstock, that mother of all festivals in 1969.


Daisy Wood-Davies with a stunning voice as Sheila

Does Hair still resonate 50 years on? It has vitality, energy, music – with a great on-stage band under musical director Gareth Bretherton – and it captures the era well, but the original was part of the era, a landmark musical, and perhaps that is the difference.

Its nudity, short and in a gloom so dim you would need the eyes of a barn owl or night vision goggles to make out even sexes, its profanity and its drugs and sexuality was designed not so much to shock as to challenge convention in the late 60s. Today profanity is old hat, as anyone who has seen Jerusalem or Glengarry Glen Ross will know, while nudity, especially in semi-darkness, hardly excites, not when what would have been porn 50 years ago is almost mainstream on today’s TV and film.

Vietnam and the draft are long gone while the marijuana, free love, peace to all men culture of the 60s has given way to harder drugs, turf wars and almost daily stabbings.

Hair's time passed almost 50 years ago as the 60s morphed into the punk, glitter and glam rock of the 70s, but that doesn't mean it has nothing to say or that it does not have a freshness and vitality as a window on an era that changed the world.

Star of the show, and its focus, is Paul Wilkins who is superb as Claude. He is torn between principles and patriotism. Called up to fight in Vietnam, he doesn’t want to fight or kill people, or die for that matter, but he doesn’t want to let his father, or his country down.


David Heywood as Jackson, Bradley Judge as Woof and Jake Quickenden as Berger

A second act hallucination sees a series of scenes where his death seems a likely outcome while, in real life, his friends, the Tribe, who do not face jail for refusing to fight, are trying to persuade him to burn his draft card and run.

Wilkins, who has played Marius in Les Mis in the West End, has a wonderful musical theatre voice and makes the troubled Claude a convincing lead. He puts real life into I Got Life and a sadness into the questioning Where Do I Go.

Leading the Tribe is Berger played by Dancing on Ice winner Jake Quickenden, another with a good voice - and an impressive level of fitness as he leaps on the stage from that stalls. Berger, though, is hardly the charismatic, or even agreeable character you would expect to command the undying devotion of a bunch of hippies.

It is almost as if Rado and Ragn did not fully approve of him, His treatment of Sheila over her gift of a shirt, for example, jarred, it was unworthy of his supposed standing or of the culture he was part of - it was just downright cruel.  Mind you, you do have to give it to anyone who will leap into the audience in little more than a thong.

Marcus Collins brings infectious energy to the character of Hud, who pops up in a role of guises including Claude’s dad while Tom Bales as Glowy displays a nice touch in Clinger-style drag as inquisitive tourist Margaret Mead, then there is Bradley Judge as Woof who is in love with Mick Jagger – that boy needs help.

And in these days of multi-talented performers David Haywood plays hippy Jackson, and weighs in with flute, saxophone and snare, while Laura Sillett is a lovely Helena  adding piccolo, saxophone and trumpet to the mix.

Natalie Green is a fine Cassie, with a lovely voice, Aiesha Pease impresses as Dionne while Kelly Sweeny gives Crissy an essential part of the story with another fine voice and a lovely Frank Mills.

Daisy Wood-David (Hollyoaks) displays a wonderful voice as Berger’s love interest Sheila, and, along with Claude, is a character fleshed out enough for you start to feel for. Her Easy to To Be Hard is a class act with her stand-out voice while Alison Arnopp can belt out a number as pregnant drop-out Jeanie.

Spin as Tajh and Louise Francis as Raven join with Collins as Hud to highlight racial prejudice, another big movement in the USA – Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 – and half a century on it is still an unwelcome reality in too many places.

This is an ensemble piece though, a cast thing, 14 strong, the first rock opera to make it to stage and it is the ensemble numbers which stand out from that anthem of the 60s, Aquarius, through Good Morning Starshine to Let The Sun Shine In, and throw in Electric Blues to plunge the theatre into darkness.

Maeve Black’s design is a psychedelic delight, with tree stump for soapboxing, and the band in tents and draped platforms, with walls and proscenium of Day-Glo colours and ribbons.

Ben M Rogers makes his lighting fun or dramatic depending upon mood while sound from Calum Robinson and Max Perryment is well balanced which is not always the case in rock while Galt MacDermot’s music manages to encompass blues, rock, pop, folk and anything inbetween – remember the hippy generation spanned from The Who, Iron Butterfly, and Frank Zappa to Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez and Simon and Garfunkel..

William Whelton keeps the choreography lively, although I seem to remember it was much less co-ordinated and a lot less energestic back in the day, especially if the atmosphere was a little, should we say, smoky, while director Jonathan O’Boyle has kept everything moving along at a cracking pace with some nice touches.

This is perhaps a bit more sanitised than the original, slicker, more musical and less protest, after all the Vietnam war, the running theme of Hair, ended 44 years ago.

But as the climate protest and school children’s strike show, the young still have ideals, still have causes, still believe they can change the world, they still want peace, still want freedom and equality, still want to save the planet.

The hippy movement might have faded, along with Vietnam, but the ideals of Hair, the universal principles the hippy generation stood for, still resonate loud and clear today. It’s a night of nostalgia for those of a certain age, and a night of fun, remarkable energy and entertainment - and good music for the rest. The causes may have evolved but the message is the same. The sun shines in to 04-05-19,

Roger Clarke


Hair will be tripping to Wolverhampton Grand 23-27 July. 

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