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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Gielgud


  Gavin Creel and company/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Out of the dark, backward abysm of time come the hippies, some marching, some dancing, some swinging onto the stage from the boxes. Back are the beads, the fringes, the Afros, and the placards of defiance (“Hell, no! We won't go!”) or advice (“Save water: Shower with a friend”). The only slogan missing was “LBJ, pull out, like your father should have.”
In 1968 that last line was breathtakingly crude—or so I thought at the time. On its first appearance I had no interest in seeing Hair and less than no interest in hippies. I had spent my early teenage years studying etiquette and elegant dress, learning to mix cocktails, and memorizing the better lines in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations so that, as soon as I was old enough to date, I would fit in with the sophisticated set. My ideal mate was a combination of George Sanders, Herbert Marshall and Cary Grant. When the Sixties hit the fan, I felt as shattered and betrayed as the hippies' parents.
As Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot didn't write, however, I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now. I was curious to see how my more youthful but more detached self would respond to the re-grown Hair, which, for the first time in London, is a transplant of the entire Broadway cast.
Diane Paulus' staging cannot be faulted for its energy and lightheartedness, even if they give a misleading impression of that languid, earnest time. The production conveys the giddy feeling of a decade when anything seemed possible, while poking fun at its goofy delusions of grandeur (“We levitated the Pentagon!”). The lack of anger is notable, considering the hatred then directed at politicians and parents; here the former are shown gentle reproach, the latter gently teased. The gender-bending is frolicsome rather than confrontational, and what once sounded depraved now seems innocent. When Luther Creek's Woof, with the eager, awestruck gaze of a fledgling that has just emerged from the egg, asks a priest why the words for non-reproductive sexual practices “sound so nasty,” we can't help thinking that, back then, we didn't know the priest might have said, “But they're not—let me show you.”
The choreography—actors stand still and shake or join hands and walk in a circle—is not exactly thrilling, but a polished dance routine would, of course, look out of place. Splendid voices send the good-natured, bouncy songs winging out over the auditorium, though in 1968 this would have happened without the little cheek-cradling mikes that turn every actor into Stephen Hawking. Gavin Creel as Claude, the conflicted hippie who can't bring himself to dodge the draft, gives an extremely touching performance, singing “I Got Life” with the passion of one who has just realised how precious it is and how soon he may be deprived of it.
Now for the other hand. Will Swenson, as the head hippie, Berger, could be auditioning for the role of handsome-but-clueless second banana on one of those sitcoms that peddle smug aggression as charm. The actresses are rather vapid, though Allison Case does a good job (wistful but not wet) with that endearingly wonky hymn to what might have been, “Frank Mills.” But the smiles, the melodies, the vitality cannot obliterate for me what at the time was foolishness but is now dishonesty. The white girls singing about the allure of black men—what is that but turning sex into commodity fetishism? The enthusiasm for getting high—how many young people did that kill? We are told, as back then, that you can do anything you want “as long as you don't hurt anybody,” a high-minded rule that, in practice, meant telling victims they were over-sensitive. All the exuberance of Hair can't make me forget a society drenched in pornography and rates of illegitimacy, venereal disease and divorce that testify to two subsequent generations of hippie values gone mainstream. Yesterday's counterculture rock is today's Muzak. 

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