Victoria Melody has been many things: pigeon fancier, Northern Soul dancer, championship dog handler (with her trusty friend Major Tom, subject of her last show). That show weaved together stories of the dog’s bid to win competitions with her own attempts at the beauty queen business – come on down Mrs Brighton! Part of her transformation into a beauty queen saw our Vic augmenting her barnet with hair extensions, transforming her into a luscious-locked blonde. The hair is real human hair, and it is glued on. Yes, human hair glued on to other human hair. At some point it occurred to her to ask: where did my hair come from?
So here we are: another show is born. This one has a set comprising a hairdresser’s chair – and the world’s only battery-operated hairdryer – a screen at the back of the stage, and to each side plinths with mirrors in front and a monitor on top of each. There are, of course, wigs involved. Lost of wigs. Short and dark. Long and blonde. Natural looking, and highly artificial. Marie Antoinette type artificial.
On her hairdresser’s trolley, Victoria has three ‘tails’ of hair which she’d used in her previous show. ‘Do you know whose hair this is?’ she asks. This becomes a repeated mantra throughout the show. Cue song: The Who – Who Are You?
In her search to find out, she goes to Kings College London where she meets a scientist who will help her with her quest. It turns out that one tail is from India. One is from Russia. And one is of unknown origin. It might even be pony – a real pony tail!
So off she goes to India where she meets Nerika, who has been trying to get herself to Tiramala temple to get ‘tonsured’ – to have her head shaved as an act of religious observance, sacrifice, and purification. The extremely personable Nerika becomes a key player in the show, appearing on screen, on the monitor stage-right, throughout, as we follow her decision-making process. On the screen stage-left is another key-player, Beverly, who is Victoria’s cousin.We similarly get to hear about her life and decisions around her hair: Beverly is a single mother who believes in not letting yourself go when you have kids, making regular trips to beauty parlours, and to the hairdressers for extensions. Pairing these two is perfect. And as is the case in all of Victoria Melody’s highly anthropological theatre pieces, her subjects are observed with loving neutrality. No judgement is passed on anyone’s choices.
She also travels to Russia and meets a hair dealer – Russian ‘virgin’ hair is the most desired in the world. No, it doesn’t mean the hair of virgins – it’s that the long fair hair doesn’t need bleaching, making it highly desirable. On the screen at the back of the stage, we watch as dealer Russlan negotiates with women carrying their dead mother’s hair in carrier bags, or with women who have grown and cut and sold their hair four or five or more times.
Hair Peace feels like the sequel it is to Major Tom – and if, at the moment, it doesn’t feel quite as strong a work, that is probably down to the newness of the material rather than the content, which is equally engaging. Or maybe it’s just that there’s no dog live on stage – what can follow that? The structure of the show follows a similar pattern – her anthropological research transposed into a mix of cheery, confessional performance and film – and the core subject matter is similarly to do with female image and the beauty business.
It is not Victoria Melody’s style to be ardently polemical. Yet her work manages to unite the personal and the political in a seamless way, never losing track of the need to entertain when on a stage. The whole business of the significance of a woman’s crowning glory is investigated with wit and humour. Why are we so obsessed with hair?
And there are questions aplenty here about the hair extensions and wigs business. Do Indian temple-goers know that their hair is going to be sold to the West at vast profit? Do we care if women in Russia get £15 for hair that will cost ten times that amount in a swish hairdressing salon? Is it right that human hair is brought into the UK not as a body part but as an accessory?
An hour in Victoria Melody’s company is always thought-provoking and entertaining in equal measure. She has a way about her that invites the confiding of confidences from collaborators, and the conveying of information gleaned with both charm and confidence. There’s no fourth wall, and her relationship with the audience is engaged and respectful, with moments of audience interaction handled with aplomb. A delightful show!