Hot footing it across town from the Hackney Empire, well £25 in a mincab, we got to the Piccadilly Theatre just in time to sample the free pre-show wine before the start of this one-off performance of HAIR in aid of the Help for Heroes charity.
Following a sobering and inspiring pre-show talk from soldier Derek Derenalagi, who lost both legs in an explosion in Afghanistan but who is now, with support from Help for Heroes, competing in the upcoming Paralympics, "The Tribe" take to the stage.
This is more or less the production that was to have toured the UK with Gareth Gates in the role of Claude, but which was cancelled and limited to a two week run at Munich’s Deutsches Theatre, where Gates was replaced by Stephen Rolley who is remarkably still in his third year at Italia Conti.
With book and lyrics by real-life couple Gerome Ragni and James Rado and music by Galt MacDermot, HAIR is a period piece that wears its’ heart on its’ sleeve and would now be squarely aimed at that demographic of teenagers who are finally growing out of their love for Wicked. The abstract plot, such as it is, follows a group of hippies railing against their parents and the Vietnam War. Only sweet gentle Claude declines to burn his draft card and joins up with inevitable results. Full of anachronisms and some very lame and dubious jokes at the expense of gays and cross dressers, it is best approached as a historical document, a record of what was once a truly ground breaking theatrical experience, not least for its’ uninhibited portrayal of sex, drugs and nudity as a normal part of the lives of the young. While it unboubtedly has flaws, what HAIR also has is an abundance of some of the most exhilarating songs to come out of the late sixties, including Aquarius, I Got Life, Good Morning Starshine and the truly spine-tingling climactic Let The Sun Shine In.
The young cast, including Amy Diamond and Zoe Birkett, two talent show rejects that are TV’s loss and musical theatre's gain, Stephen Rolley and up and coming leading man George Maguire as Berger, the unofficial spokesman of the tribe, give committed portrayals on a minimal set surrounded by a tight, funky seven piece band. Diamond in particular, tall, beautiful, blonde and with the voice of the proverbial angel has stage presence aplenty and delivers her first act solo Easy To Be Hard with aching conviction as Berger rejects a token of her love.
The audience rise to their feet as one for the afore-mentioned Let The Sun Shine In, which is followed by a real treat. The original Berger and Claude from the 1968 London production, Oliver Tobias and Paul Nicholas, together with other members of that cast, but sadly not Elaine Paige (where are you EP?), join the current company for reprises of Aquarius, Let The Shine In and Hair. A good natured stage invasion is encouraged by the cast and for a few brief minutes we are transported back to the late sixties and the inherent possibilities that decade promised.
Stepping out of the theatre into the warmish night air, Piccadilly Circus is at a standstill and glowing with red and yellow as young Spaniards, the children and grandchildren of the HAIR generation, fill the streets overjoyed that they finally have something to celebrate. Let us hope that their good fortune continues as a new dawn arises.