Review: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Radio Show Live! / Based on the novels by Douglas Adams, adapted, written and directed by Dirk Maggs / Starring: Simon Jones, Geoff McGivern, Susan Sheridan, Mark Wing-Davey, Stephen Moore (voice)/ Music: Philip Pope
Whether you’re a grizzled, hardened fan of the late Douglas Adams’ classic, timeless 1970s radio (and so much more besides) comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy or just intrigued to see how such a mind-boggling Universe-spanning concept can be brought to the stage in the 21st century, it’s pretty much a certainty that you’ll feel a cheeky little thrill as the live stage band, led by Philip Pope, strikes up that familiar, ramshackle Paddy Kingsland theme tune. Moments later we’re pitched, for the umpteenth time, into the upside-down world of Arthur Dent (as in ‘the late Arthur Dent’) as he’s snatched from his mundane existence wearing nothing much more than a garish dressing gown, by his long-time good friend (and secret planet-hopping researcher for the titular Guide) Ford Prefect, just as the planet Earth is demolished to make way for an intergalactic bypass.
Hitchhiker's has been done to death on stage over the years, of course, but this new show is a celebration - and recreation - of the radio production by the original cast, now thicker of waist and greyer of hair but their voices just as they were when we heard those original, ground-breaking broadcasts more years ago than we might care to remember. This is no boring, static presentation of ageing actors standing in front of microphone stands reading from scripts; well, there is a bit of that going on but there’s also a whole lot more. There’s the aforementioned live band, some natty screen-projected visual effects - including many of the more memorable Guide entries, a brilliant realisation of Marvin the Paranoid Android operated War Horse style and with Stephen Moore’s original vocals and, perhaps best of all, a guest narrator seated on a plinth at the back of the stage intoning the words of the book as so wonderfully presented by the late Peter Jones in the radio and TV series. Phill Jupitus was on book duties when Starburst paid a visit and he pretty much brought the house down with ad-libbed jokes about Jimmy Carr (the day after the comic’s tax indiscretions became public knowledge) and his later front-of-stage appearance as the Dish of the Day in a pair of tiny leopard-skin pants.
Director/adapter Dirk Maggs (who also appears on stage as one of the busy practical FX guys and occasional Foley artist) has skillfully sliced the very best material from Adam’s infamous trilogy-in-five-parts to create a more focused two-hour stage script. It’s a bit of a jolt to see almost all the original material with Arthur and Ford on Earth before its demolition excised but it allows the production to move on quickly to the really good stuff - and all the good stuff from the first series/book is here. We get the Vogons in full poetic flow, the (occasionally) two-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox and his stolen Heart of Gold spaceship with its Infinite Improbability Drive, the landing on the ancient planet of Magrathea, the mice and even the curious tale of the whale and the vase of flowers. It’s a tight, fast first half and the audience responds to all the familiar jokes and gags as if they’re old friends. Part two is a bit less successful, plundering material the audience seems less at home with and much of it is more random, occasionally drifting into meandering slapstick and the storyline itself gets utterly lost in a muddle of time paradoxes, duplicate Earths and Arthur’s search for an acceptable cup of tea.
In many ways Hitchhiker’s is quintessentially British and distinctly of its time. A 21st century version would be packed with trendy swearing and boundary-pushing offensiveness but there’s something reassuringly innocent about Adams’ clever wordplay and wild imaginative flights of fancy with barely a ‘damn’ or a ‘blast’ finding its way into his text and certainly nothing much more offensive than the suggestion that, in one reality or another, Arthur and Trillian did the deed and found themselves with a rebellious child.
The live show is a game of two halves, tight and focussed in the first half but a bit more obscure in the second. But it’s a joyful, exuberant production and a wonderful - and frankly unmissable - opportunity to see the original radio cast reunited and clearly having as much fun as the audience. And quite rightly, the last curtain call goes to the late Douglas Adams as his cast pay tribute to the man who made all the magic and the madness possible.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy Radio Show Live! Is touring the UK until 21st July 2012. Book your tickets HERE.