first night

HAIR

Chris Guard takes a trip with the cast of HAIR

The moment you walk into the Assembly Rooms for DULOG's production of the tribal 'love-rock' musical HAIR, the show is already in full flow. A lively and interactive cast of close-knitted bohemians positioned everywhere physically possible in the auditorium greet you, welcoming and involving you in their tribe whether you like it or not. A ten piece onstage band jam away to the group's request -albeit with tracks not always in period. Dan Gosselin and Angus Richman's excellent and creative lighting design bathes the stage in a rainbow of colours. You may have possibly guessed that this is already no ordinary theatrical experience. Before you know it, the real show has begun without you realising ... from here on in, words genuinely begin to fail me in describing quite what I witnessed.

HAIR follows a group of New York City hippies in the 1960s at the height of the USA's involvement in the Vietnam War, facing conscription and conservative oppression. Claude (Henry Coates), the leader of the tribe, is faced with the dilemma of choosing between serving his country in Vietnam or resisting the draft like his fellow tribes-people, whilst his closest friends Berger (Alex Humphries) and Sheila (Elissa Churchill) struggle to find their place in the world. This brief synopsis describes the 'plot' of what feels like a frankly plotless and unfollowable show at its most basic level - which is by no means always the fault of the production.

It starts strongly with one of the show's flagship numbers, 'Aquarius'. The chorus vocals shine from the outset and throughout, and are without a doubt one of the production's highlights. Jack Moreton and Rob Collins have produced a tight and clean harmonic sound. Despite lacking fire and diction at times, and the occasional slipped pitches during the more close-quarters duo and trio numbers, the vocals resonate throughout the theatre. All of this is supported by a great band, driven by an excellent rhythm section, who play strongly and with presence without ever overpowering the onstage action.

Following a powerful start, Alex Humphries grabs the baton as Berger and well and truly sprints with it, coming close to stealing the show. His lovable interpretation of such an eccentric character was a joy to watch, and his vocals pretty much matched his unfathomable energy, despite having various wig issues (which, it must be said, were not restricted to him alone, and the use of them felt somewhat under-rehearsed and difficult).

The relay does anything but stop there. Ben Gittins as the endearing Woof produced a vocally soaring rendition of 'Sodomy', and Hugh Train's Hud was nothing short of outstanding. Train most definitely led the chorus not only into the lunacy but also the auditorium, where they spent a surprising amount of the show, to the audience's pleasure / displeasure. First-timer Henry Coates gives a somewhat mixed performance as Claude. He clearly has great potential, with certain aspects - particularly during the second half drug trip (more on that later) - being impressive. However, the part did unfortunately feel somewhat vocally beyond him in places, and what could've been a deeper character sadly felt flat and one-dimensional.

Lizzie McGhee also comes close to being a show stealer as Jeanie, always hilariously appears from the stage trapdoor (demonstrating another inventive use of the space from director John Muething). With just a little more power in her performance, McGhee could really be one to watch. Other accomplished solo contributions are provided by members of the strong female chorus, in particular Hannah Azuonye as Diane, Rebecca Meltzer as the strikingly operatic Margaret Mead, and Izzy Osborne as Mary. However, the female standout was Elissa Churchill's Sheila. Her performance described a character which felt deeper with emotion than the majority, and certainly one which was far more than just an ever-loving hippy. The rendition of 'Easy to be Hard' that Churchill provided was excellent, and one of the few moments in the production which was not only genuinely refreshing, but where I completely stopped writing.

Sadly, lead performances cannot completely save a production from some of its fundamental flaws. Whilst the initial energy of the chorus during the larger numbers was seriously impressive, the awkward and stilted transitions between numbers and dialogue deadened the majority of it. Furthermore, such energy peaked early - the pace of the show dramatically dipped towards the end of the first half and didn't pick up into the second. One key example of this is the drug trip, namely the majority of Act II. Quite possibly the most bizarre thing I've ever witnessed in a theatre, with pantomime horses being ridden through the auditorium and an odd collection of musical numbers being presented in quick succession, it had the potential to really fly by. Instead, it terribly dragged, with the energy constantly dropping and blocking becoming messy, up to the point where the musical's arguably most famous number, 'The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)', felt tired and passionless.

Lucie Crawford's choreography was both inventive and imaginative throughout the production, and in numbers such as 'Going Down' when combined with the explosive chorus energy was great to watch, but it did unfortunately feel cramped in the limited space of the stage which was mainly being taken up by the band (whom were barely interacted with - a missed opportunity considering that they were dressed accordingly).

And then there is of course the much talked about nudity. I have the greatest respect for any actor, let alone a student, who is willing to bear all on the public stage, but its inclusion frankly felt both unnecessary and half-done. Its use in the original Broadway production served a meaningful purpose, inspired by two unknown men who famously removed all their clothing at an anti-war gathering, but here it felt anything but. Only a handful of the cast eventually removed all their clothing, whilst others removed very little - one couldn't help but feel that an 'all or nothing' approach would've served the production better. In this case, it provided no meaningful impact, and in many ways detracted from other aspects, leaving a very awkward vibe in the audience.

All criticism said and done, however, I would be lying if I said that I didn't enjoy myself. I find it difficult to recommend as a musical on a personal level, but it is without a doubt worth making your way to DULOG's production of HAIR to see what you take away from it. I have a feeling that, whatever that may be, you certainly didn't expect it. 

13 March 2013

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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