Browse reviews

FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Written by Gerome Radni and James Rado with composer Galt MacDermot, this revival’s directed by Jonathan O’Boyle with Max Reynolds as Resident Director, choreographed by William Whelton, with Gareth Bretherton’s musical direction and arrangements with Calum Robinson’s never-intrusive sound design and Max Perryment’s soundscape, and Maeve Black’s set and costume design with Ben M Rogers’ crucial lighting.


When students Gerome Radni and James Rado brought in composer Galt MacDermot in 1967 to realize their sketches of some anti-Vietnam protests they’d witnessed, they hadn’t quite grasped they’d write the defining rock musical; and capture the counter-culture definitively.


So much so that 50 years on the message isn’t just fresh but frightening. For such an exuberant musical, its conclusion is devastating. It’s not what you think it’ll be. This new touring production’s been deservedly pelted with accolades.


It’s possibly the best-sung Hair ever, certainly danced with precision and brio and immensely lucid: you hear the words, even above non-stop excitement, polyphonies of overlapping dialogue and songs, innovative and bewildering for the time.


This revival’s directed by Jonathan O’Boyle with Max Reynolds as Resident Director, choreographed by William Whelton, with Gareth Bretherton’s musical direction and arrangements with Calum Robinson’s never-intrusive sound design and Max Perryment’s sometimes esoteric soundscape; with Maeve Black’s set and costume design with Ben M Rogers’ crucial lighting. This has to respond to the nature of sudden shifts in psychedelic trips for example.


Costume veers from hippy clothing to parodic sash-IDing parades of U. S. history from fluorescent Native Americans and sudden uniforms in one chilling scene, to faux Mormon women and the unexpectedness of audience members’ suits: often hippyish in cut as if begging to be hauled on stage. They get their wish. If you don’t like the idea, stay out of the stalls. No-one’s safe.


There’s use of sheeting, snow effects, lighting to create the effects of a trip with a heartening group solidarity expressed in tightly blocked choreography. Fast-moving numbers counterpoint the initially thin plot and during the longeurs of the ‘trip’ section soon after the interval the effects are particularly striking. Choreography here includes a scene where to the drift of dry ice, the entire 14-strong cast walk downstage collapsing to gunshots.


There’s the great numbers, the ensemble opener ‘Aquarius’ now thrillingly in context, a wild paean to a new very different generation, able to overturn their parents’ values in a way no previous one had. Admittedly there’s more affluence to allow this; no-one starves. It couldn’t happen now. Underlying it is a terrible innocence. Equally though, it would be even more difficult to enact conscription now. It’s what then united all strands of the beats, hippies and politicos in opposition.


The ensemble energy of ‘Aquarius’ counterpoints the last number, which we’ll get to. In between are fine high-energy numbers but the two which always stand out, partly because like ‘Aquarius’ they’ve entered the bloodstream are ‘I Got Life’ here sung by the titular hero Claude (made famous by Aretha Franklin); and the stratospherically lyrical ‘Good Morning Starshine’ sung by Sheila.


The plotline’s simple. Claude, nominally from Manchester UK but really Flushing US has joined a hippie community, where people drift in and out. They’ve even got library cards. It’s 1967, not yet the full-blown experiments in living, but one of the first accelerated by opposition to the Vietnam war and avoiding the draft expressed here as: ‘white people sending black people to fight yellow people to protect the country they stole from the red people.’ A war that killed millions and nearly 60,000 mainly black Americans. For nothing. The north won, everyone’s reconciled and holidays there; even a visiting U. S, president.


Paul Wilkins’ Claude is ambivalent, though opposed to the war. Perhaps he feels his roots are fragile everywhere. In his protest particularly ‘I Got Life’ a more quirky torch song perhaps than Franklin made of it, he captures his own ambivalence. He’s befriended by Jake Quickenden’s Berger, the other male lead, whose high octane attitude to everything contrasts with the torn Claude’s. His voice is acetylene too, tearing through ‘Donna’ his ideal.


To counterpoint the testosterone Aiesha Pease the most powerful voice on stage sings as Dionne from ‘Aquarius’ onwards as the ensemble lead. Kelly Sweeney’s Crissy is another dominant female voice: sharp, Broadway sassy which makes her less innocent than Crissy’s meant to be. Her ‘Frank Mills’ is another lost ideal, a boy she saw with a drummer. You feel Sweeney’s Crissy will hunt him down or get over him.


Bradley Judge’s lyrical Woof sings ‘Sodomy’ and is given a Mick Jagger poster (astonishing to thin this icon then is still performing when his juniors are pensioners). Hud, Woof and Berger sing ‘I’m Black’ though it’s only true of Hud whilst Claude sings that he’s invisible, it’s what he wants and a prophesy too.


Marcus Collins as militant Civil Rights Hud is vibrant and again a strong voice. He sings the high-energy ‘Colored Spade’ and other anti-racist song – there’s a juddery moment of would-be pc 1967 style when the cast deploy Injun costumes. It’s well-intentioned and now perhaps gets away with being in-yer-face. ‘Dead End’ though allows commune members of colour to present a more realistic world. Collins, Louise Francis’ Raven, Sweeney, Spin’s Tajh and Pease make a powerful group.


There’s kooky Jeanie Alison Arnopp characterises just the right edge of kookydom, again a wonderful sharp-toned comic soubrette role. who summarizes everyone’s romantic entanglements: ‘I’m hung up on Claude, Sheila’s hung up on Berger, Berger is hung up everywhere. Claude is hung up on a cross over Sheila and Berger.’ Jeanie’s pregnant casually and wishes the child was Claude’s


Tom Bales’ Glowy also doubles as an outrageous Mormon woman querying their lifestyle answered by Claude and Berger in the title song ‘Hair’ and revealing herself to be something else altogether. There’s fine support too from Natalie Green’s ‘Cassie’, David Heywood’s flute and snare, Laura Stillett, piccolo and trumpet.


The heart-stripper though is Daisy Wood-Davis’ Sheila. Her great moment in ‘Good Morning Starshine’ that paean to hope, idealism and a new age. It’s heart-rendingly sung with all the star-scouring lyrical stave-lines you could ask for, revealing itself like ‘I Got Life’ as in context almost unbearably moving. The men act churlishly (Berger rips a gift of a yellow shirt then is reconciled and stitches it).


But for Claude dilemmas loom even after the energy stop of the second half’s opening, where ingenious ways to keep the musical from mission drift almost convince us. But Hair comes back the more powerful for its trip and the end is explosive. We’ve had ‘Where Do I Go’ to close the first half, and it’s memorable, but ‘Let the Sun shine In’ in the context of what happens is an overwhelming experience.


So searingly relevant now the opening referring backwards from Trump isn’t even necessary, you wonder at the apparent naivety of this generation, with their weird fixation on climate change, love, peace, tolerance, and why these should seem anything but a first dawning of the age of sanity. It’s a musical we need forever. This production with its bite, clarity, marvellous voices and fresh choreography overcomes any longeurs. Stage effects too make the best possible case. Outstanding.