Last Sunday we donned our winter boots and brollies and headed down to Norwich Theatre’s ‘Interlude’, situated on the UEA, campus for their closing performance – Hair, directed by Arlene Phillips and featuring a star-studded cast. Our thoughts? Thought you’d never ask…
The audience broke out their winter wardrobe a tad early for this one.
Hair, The Musical, directed by Arlene Phillips and featuring songs from the original rock musical by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, was a colourful explosion of passion, profanity and pelvic gyrating. I sat in my designated COVID-compliant seat inside the Interlude tent with a glistening lake ahead of me. A spectacular set of lights (and several heat lamps) ignited the stage as the band sprung to life.
Despite my longstanding love of musicals, I had yet to experience Hair, and walked into the show with no clue what to expect. Luckily, Jodie Steele’s rhythmic swaying and Matthew Croke’s incredibly enthusiastic crotch thrusts told me everything I needed to know in the first ten seconds. This was my kind of musical.
We deep dived into 1960s America and took a trip (pun intended) through the lives of the “Age of Aquarius” tribe in New York City. The cast of eight actors owned the stage with lively, youthful performances, dressed in hippie-chic threads despite the 10°C weather. The amount of hair probably helped. At its core, Hair succeeded in delivering brilliant musical numbers, which should be credited to the powerhouse singing and most importantly, the band: their delivery of the show’s beloved rock anthems worked beautifully in the outdoor venue, filling the space and probably the bedrooms of the surrounding accommodation as well. A job well done.
Cleve September gave a standout performance as Woof, proving his versatility and comedic acting throughout. Whilst playing a hilariously high-pitched woman in one scene, he used his pocket scarf as a ponytail, twirling it endlessly whilst delivering each line. Jodie Steele as Shelia similarly deserves a special mention: her energetic performance held the stage and captured the audience. Alongside Steele’s exceptional vocals, she came across as genuinely enjoying every moment on stage. During some scenes, I found it incredibly difficult to take my eyes off her. A real pleasure to watch. More than any other character, I would have loved T’Shan Williams’s portrayal of Dionne to feature more prevalently during the performance, allowing greater room for her flawless vocals. Her singing consistently blew me away with its clarity and control, adding beautiful harmonies to verses and rounding out every song.
The production was kept to a strict 90 minute runtime (the full runtime being just over two hours for a full rendition, excluding an intermission). Of course, a condensed performance will have to make concessions. This production of Hair chose to prioritise musicality over plot – we saw fragments of Jeanie’s pregnancy and her love for Claude, and one song was dedicated to introducing the rocky relationship between Berger and Sheila. Aside from that, the potholed narrative centred on Claude’s decision to resist or accept his conscription to the Vietnam War. As a plotline, it’s simple enough to follow with minimal explanation. Unfortunately, with such a strong focus on bohemian counter-culture and integration, the unbalanced focus on Claude throughout the second half sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise brilliant performance. He’s tall, white and handsome (and hairy, of course) but fails to be either a protagonist or an equal to his fellow characters.
However, despite its bitty narrative, this performance of Hair retains much of the original essence created by Gerome Ragni and James Rado. The duo conceived of the musical as an autobiographical window into their relationship. Ragni’s Claude was the leader of the tribe, battling throughout with his life changing decision. His conscription underlies the displays of illegal drug use, sexual revolution, and especially the central pacifism that draws the characters together. The freedom and celebration of their songs are darkened once the audience knows what Claude knows – the harsh reality of the world is right outside the door. Eventually their songs, no matter how loud, won’t be enough to hide it.
Overall, I was encapsulated, energised and overwhelmingly impressed by the talent on stage. The songs made it into the Top 10 when they were released and absolutely could again. The character’s themes and honesty and their passion are as relevant today as ever before.
Let me set the scene. The show opens with Hair favourite “Aquarius”, led by the formidable T’Shan Williams as Dionne, and for the first time since pre-COVID I feel the familiar rumble of bass vibrating inside my chest. T’Shan releases a serious of incredible, raw belts – and my eyes involuntarily well with tears. I try to distract myself – but all I can see is the rest of the cast glowing, elated, so connected with each other that I almost forget our setting and the fact that the cast are distanced a meter apart from one another. I cast my gaze across the tent; I see families and friends wiggling along to the beat in their seat, holding each other’s hands and squeezing. I see the band barely able to contain themselves, bums lifting off of stools to the beat. I see my friends beside me, grinning, eyes glistening. I’m beautifully overwhelmed, and the tears just fall. Up until this moment, I’d almost foolishly forgotten what a powerful thing seeing people enjoying themselves, their company, and the arts could be. On this rainy mid-October afternoon, in the Interlude open-air tent, in the middle of a university green; we collectively bear witness to the unadulterated power, joy, friendship, and art.
Throughout this condensed version of Hair, the entire cast’s performances were breath-taking, hilarious and moving. Though we didn’t get to see as many of the plot points and contexts in this version as we would have in the full stage musical, we were still able to connect to the characters we met thanks to the sheer story-telling prowess of the actors. Jodie Steele’s performance as Sheila was a stand-out – I felt like I knew this woman, and would absolutely follow her rallying cries in to a protest. Cleve September as Woof had me giggling away, and combined with his smooth notes, I was hooked. Jordan Luke Gage masterfully grounded the production as Claude, providing an authenticity that the show’s message is dependent upon. There was not a single note out of place in this performance, and each member of the cast contributed to one of the most impressive vocal displays I’ve seen in recent years.
Despite the remarkable quality of the performances and the ability that this show and cast have to make you dance along, why Hair? Why now, a musical about the 60s social climate in the middle of a pandemic in 2020? It’s safe to say that the creatives of this show knew that performing Hair – a controversial and outrageous cult classic – could never be just a ‘blast from the past’ showcase: there is no way for Hair to not be political. Throughout the show, we see Hair’s 60’s rock soundtrack and psychedelic hippy aesthetic (complete with beanbags and flowers galore) against a backdrop of modern images and projection – with particular emphasis on the climate emergency and environmental protests. This juxtaposition ensures that we do not relax and just watch this show to sing and dance along – in addition to the foot-taps and seat-jiggles, we must acknowledge that the causes that people in the 60s were fighting for (racial equality, environmental change, abolishment of war and violence) are still issues today, and not enough has changed.
This particular production of Hair is also inherently political – as art often is – in that it is being performed in a moment when the value of the Arts is being scrutinised more than ever by our government, resulting in a lack of financial support for the Arts throughout a pandemic which has (and will) see many of our centres of creativity shut. However, what could not have been anticipated was that this version of the show would be up merely days after our government has come under fire for suggesting that artists and creatives should retrain into a different industry if they want to have a job.
There is no doubt that the sheer joy on that stage, the complicity between performers, musicians and audience, the collective moment shared between each person in that big tent, was political. Each note, each thrust, each grin that the cast shared together felt like a huge middle finger to not only the social and political issues in Hair, but to our own in 2020, and especially to anyone questioning why the Arts deserves our unwavering support at a time so difficult for almost every person globally. This production was a rallying cry for the viability of the arts – for which I extend my thanks and congratulations – and a reminder that those in power should know that, much like the characters in Hair, “our eyes are open”.
Unfortunately Georgia couldn’t make it to this show as she had a prior arrangement to play football, however she did ask us to share this really important image of her in action. We couldn’t be more proud.
All photography credit goes to formidable Norwich talent, Max Hilton.