Gavin Creel in Hair
(© Michael Le Poer Trench)
Gavin Creel in Hair
(© Michael Le Poer Trench)
The Public Theatre's Tony Award-winning revival of the 1960s musical Hair has been transplanted to London with most of the 2009 Broadway cast intact, and while there's something faintly ticklish about this hymn to American counter-culture being staged in the West End's plush Gielgud Theatre, one can't argue with its infectious energy.

Diane Paulus' production is played as a thing of its time. There's no attempt to add a sprinkling of irony to it or to update it in any way, but that's not to say it's without relevance. The show's capacity to shock has, however, almost entirely evaporated; the references to sodomy and masturbation -- and even the mass disrobing that ends the first act -- feel celebratory and a perhaps a little childish, rather than in any way offensive.

Hair is an episodic piece, intentionally aimless in the way it depicts the exploits of a group of hippies in New York City of the 1960s. It takes some time before any characters emerge from the tribe. What plot there is involves the bare-chested, swaggering Berger (Will Swenson) and the sweet, Manchester-fixated Claude (Gavin Creel) whose attempts to avoid the draft becomes the hook on which the story hangs.

Familiar song follows familiar song in the show's first act -- including: "Aquarius," "I Got Life," and the title tune -- and so much of the score has seeped into the mainstream over the past 40 years that it's refreshing to hear it all in context. There are a number of superb voices amongst the cast, which adds to the enjoyment.

Meanwhile, the production, as a whole, has an anarchic disregard for the fourth wall. The cast regularly hop down into the stalls or climb up ladders into the circle and at frequent points throughout the show there are people clambering across seatbacks, handing out flowers, or simply wandering around the aisles, beaming beatifically at people and ruffling their hair.

The worry one might have that the whole production is just too glossy to really convey the essence of the period is dispatched with the darker second half. Most of this takes the form of an extended bad acid trip suffered by Claude, one which is populated with a series of American historical figures. Paulus handles the shift in tone well, and this section provides a nice counterpoint to the wide-eyed exuberance of earlier scenes. Despite being so specifically concerned with Vietnam, this portrait of idealistic young people being confronted with life's sharp edges still has considerable resonance and the final moments have real power.

Hair is also not completely unquestioning of the hippie ethos. Certain exchanges show how, for some, the temptation to drop out was not always about changing the world, but rather an attempt to avoid responsibility and the need to grow up. The hippies are at times shown to be both naïve and selfish in their actions, and the way that women often get a raw deal from men (and the world) is also not ignored.

Nonetheless, this revival registers a a joyous, uplifting and celebratory experience, one which ends with the audience being invited on stage -- and large numbers leaving their seats -- to join in with the swaying and singing.