As BN magazine's chief cultural reporter (!) it was great to be invited to watch Hair in London at the Vaults Theatre. This year is the 50th anniversary of the first showing back in 1967. At that time Lyndon Johnson was the US President and Harold Wilson the Prime Minister. The Vietnam war was at its height with John McCain (now Senator) being shot down. Apollo 1 was destroyed by fire, the first North Sea oil came ashore and Milton Keynes was founded. Puppet on a String won Eurovision but on a classier note Sergeant Pepper topped the charts, becoming the theme for 'The Summer of Love.'
But this was not just any old performance of Hair. Thanks to BN member Chris Grady, the show was clothes optional for the audience. Pre-show drinks in the bar set the scene wonderfully as the area was a themed Woodstock. No one wasted time standing around shyly and clothes were rapidly discarded. Despite being under the arches of Waterloo the venue had thoughtfully ramped up the heating. The floor consisted of bark shavings and the bar and souvenir stall had a beach type feel. We soon recognised many BN regulars but there were also lots of non-members including many under 30s. Some of us had taken the opportunity to dress up with our beads and bandannas to add to the atmosphere.
Entering the theatre we passed the cast slumped around on the grass floor. As well as the conventional theatre seating arrangement there were also about fifty people sat on the sides. The show started with the heavy beat of helicopter blades and an American voice introducing the President of the United States...... Donald Trump. From there on all the references were to Vietnam and the leading characters of the time.
The show was all singing and dancing with sex, drugs and the Vietnam war as the three key ingredients, and one of the cast burning his draft card (or was it really his library card as his friend suggested?) The huge hits such as Aquarius, Good Morning Starshine, I Got Life and Let the Sun Shine In were belted out with massive enthusiasm by the young cast. Their energy and passion were a constant throughout the show. There was also humour in almost every line with some real laugh out loud moments. When the cast started interacting with the front row and putting them in embarrassing situations the audience loved it.
I saw the show about 20 years ago in a much bigger theatre with complicated and expensive scenery and a small orchestra. This show relied on clever use of cloths and ribbons and a small band. That may not sound impressive, but the director made the overall effect stunning at times. I have to say this production was by far the superior of the two. We see probably thirty to forty shows a year in London and this was one of the best and possibly the most dynamic and powerful we have seen.
It wasn't just the audience that were lapping up the atmosphere. I spoke to Andy Coxon, who played Berger, after the show. He thought it was, “A really special night and the cast will never see another one like it.” Andy also commented that, “Everyone got it, the audience injected life into the show.” On Twitter after the show Andy said, “It's probably the best audience we will ever have!! Incredible.” Two of the young actresses I spoke to were equally effusive and thought the show reached new heights. One of the them said it was the best show she had ever been in because of the audience.
After most West End shows the audience disappears into the night. Not after this performance, even though it didn't finish until well after midnight, the party went on until 2am with a disco at one end playing the soundtrack of the 60s. Andy told me the atmosphere was fabulous and the cast thoroughly enjoyed it...as did the audience.
Chris Grady, the BN member who had been instrumental in organising this clothes-optional performance, is optimistic that other events can be held like this in the future. He told me that the show was sold out after two weeks and they could easily have filled the theatre a second time. Chris said that the cast thought it was a fantastic experience. He is currently doing a research project about how we choose to reveal our bodies through live performance and art, so this production was highly relevant.
The actors on stage portrayed characters who were high on drugs. We left the theatre on a legal high intoxicated by the performance and the wonderful buzz from the after-show party. Steve and Pauline, BN members from Colchester, said that when the cast stripped off just before the interval whilst chanting; ‘beads, flowers, freedom, happiness’, “it embraced the warmth of universal harmony and celebrated individuality.” They also commented on the central theme of acceptance; “People are who they are, regardless of race, weight or anything else. It was a perfect totally uplifting naturist evening.”
“It was a really fantastic evening all round. The cast was superb and seemed lifted by the naked crowd. The staff/volunteers were really friendly and some stripped off to make it just so much more special. The venue managers were really good sports letting us party after the show too," said BN member Mat from Cornwall.
My only complaint was that it all happened far too quickly. Coming just a week after our visit to the Herrick Gallery for the Naked Britain exhibition, which was also clothes optional, it shows that London can pull in a good naked crowd of all ages for events and that the stereotype of naturists being elderly is not always the case, if we provide the right venue, setting and activity.