Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy Radio Show – Live On Stage

Note: This review is from 2012

Review by Steve Bennett

With the news of another incarnation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, you might be forgiven for thinking like a bowl of petunias: Oh no, not again.

But then there’s a good reason this franchise is forever being revisited. The enticing combination of Douglas Adams’ unmistakably droll wit and the majestically bonekrs universe he created is a potently attractive prospect – and catnip to geeks.

Adams, the arch-perfectionist, himself rewrote and expanded upon his seminal work for every media – taking the original radio series, adapting it for TV, spawning an ‘increasingly inaccurately named’ trilogy of five books, working it up as video game treatments and movie plots, Hollywood finally got to making its own version in 2005, which was a reasonable enough interpretation -– but could never live up to the memories of the original.

A similar fate befalls this stage treatment, which gets slightly hamstrung by the compromise of sticking to the familiar, which nostalgic fans would expect, while simultaneously trying to offer something a little different.

In many ways, this is back to basics – the only conceivable way to stage a story that leaps both galaxies and logic. It stars the original Radio 4 cast – minus, of course, the much-missed voice of the book, Peter Jones – and is presented in just the same way as those original 1978 shows were recorded, with actors and scripts behind stationary microphones.

Sound effects are created by inventive foley artists and their bench full of household objects; while a rock band led by comic-musician Philip Pope and creatively designed screen allow further scene-setting in a nifty bit of stage design. One let-down is the graphics from The Guide itself. Even the primitive Ceefax-era technology of the TV series had more charm than this bald text and clunky icons.

The voice of the book is filled by a small pool of guest stars over the course of the tour. Tonight, it’s Clive Anderson, a contemporary of Adams who puts a fleck of his own wit into the night. But his unfamiliarity with the script he reads, Jackanory-style from a sumptuous leather armchair, means some sections have awkwardly stilted phrasing.

The core cast, on the other hand have spent half their lives with these characters and Geoff McGivern, Simon Jones, Mark Wing-Davey and Susan Sheridan are instantly identifiable as Ford Prefect, Arthur Dent, Zaphod Beeblebrox and Trillian. Nothetheless, they are out-acted by a door. The personality the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation – and the enjoyably over-the-top supporting actor Toby Longworth who voices them – gives them a lasciviously suggestive camp that easily steals laughs.

It is part of the pantomime spirit producers have injected. Cheap laminated cards instruct the audience to cheer and applaud on cue, though they need little prompting; the comedian entertaining diners at the Restaurant At The End Of The Universe works the crowd like a slick, cheesy old pro – complete with rim-shots on the drums to underline his corny punhclines; while a couple of audience singalongs have parachuted into the story.

Even the delightful Marvin – a full-size puppet robot made from mechanical scraps and voiced by Stephen Moore – gets a solo number, full of his usual joys of creation.

Director Dirk Maggs, who seems to have forged a career working on Adams’s legacy, might have picked up a trick or two from Spamalot in converting a comedy cult to stage. The main lessons appear to be: play up the gang-show spirit, and once you’ve covered the key scenes fans would expect, you don’t have to stick too closely to an established narrative. It’s not exactly in keeping with Adams’s drier, more erudite wit… but it is more showbiz.

So this story starts, as it should, with the demolition of Dent’s house, and planet. Then we race through the infinitely improbably story of Vogon poetry, Pan-Galactic Gargle-Blasters, Babel Fish and Slartibartfast and his fiddly fjords that forms the basis of the Hitchhiker’s world.

Things get a bit weirder than even this after the break, when you might need a brain the size of a planet to follow all that goes on. All manner of improbabilities, tangled timelines and eddies in the space-time continuum are evoked to jump around the universe, including, of course, the restaurant at the end of it.

Here Maggs has plundered some of the later Hitchhiker books, which only the most devout H2G2 geek is probably aware, and although the result is more than a little confusing, it does mean there are surprises in the plot, if you can follow it. Key to this seems to be a way of incorporating Dent’s accidental nemesis, the multiply-reincarnated Agrajag, as there are tapes of Adams himself speaking the lines that can be called into service here.

Fans of the froodiest guide ever to have come out of the publishing houses of Ursa Minor will need no encouragement to see this. More casual observers might wonder quite what all the fuss is about, but can’t fail to be amused by Adams’s most pithy, offbeat observations.

Review date: 28 Jun 2012
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Woking New Victoria Theatre

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