The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show (Live): Review | Fanboys Anonymous

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show (Live): Review

Posted by DAJB Friday, October 25, 2013
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy started life as a BBC radio show way back in 1978. It quickly became a cult hit in the UK, made a successful transition to TV, spawned a series of books and has since been released and re-released on vinyl record, audio tape, VHS cassette and DVD. In 2005 it finally made its way onto the big screen but, sadly, without the original cast and due in no small part to its reliance on special effects to carry some poor casting decisions and some unwise changes to Douglas Adams's drily ironic scripts, the movie version failed to capture the spirit and wit of the original.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy written by Douglas Adams bears comparison with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
It's on stage, but it's a radio show. Except it's not on the
radio. So you can't tune in to another station.
The latest incarnation of this peculiarly British SciFi phenomenon is a stage adaptation, a self-styled live version of the radio show. It's a touring production with almost 50 scheduled dates around the UK and, last Sunday, I went to see it at the Rose Theatre in Kingston-upon-Thames. So, how was it? As mind-blowing as a pan-galactic gargle blaster, or as frighteningly awful as the ravenous bugblatter beast of Traal?

Vogons who love to shout "Resistance is useless!" like the Cybermen from Doctor Who
Vogons: the galaxy's demolition men. With (front row) a
Vogon Miley Cyrus. You know, for their wrecking ball.
Down into the very depths of time

For those not familiar with the story, the basic premise is that the Earth is a huge computer, designed to find the answer to the ultimate question of "life, the universe and everything". The program will take ten million years to run and organic life forms (specifically human beings) form part of its components. So far, so SciFi. But this is not the Matrix or even Doctor Who and the story really starts when, in a flourish of mischievous, humour, the Earth is destroyed five minutes before the program is complete. Destroyed, I should add, by an alien constructor fleet (Vogons!) to make way for a hyper-space bypass!

Luckily, one human (Arthur Dent) survives, saved by his friend Ford Prefect who, he is surprised to learn, is really an alien from Betelgeuse. Ford has been researching the Earth in order to update its entry in the best-selling travel guide The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a kind of portable galactic version of Wikipedia, known as much for its inaccuracies as for the fact that emblazoned on its cover is one very important piece of advice: "Don't panic"!

Simon Jones (also known for Brideshead Revisited and Twelve Monkeys)
Arthur Dent. Now iconic. But not
as much as his dressing gown.
And, if that sounds like I've given away a lot of spoilers, don't worry. That's all just the opening set up! Still wearing his dressing gown and armed only with a towel (vital for inter-planetary hitch-hiking) and a copy of the Guide, so begins Arthur Dent's big adventure, bringing his quintessentially British perspective to bear upon space ships, distant planets and alien species. But, as much fun as it is, the chief reason for the popularity of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is not its plot.

Douglas Adams delights in playing with the English language, possibly more so than any author since Lewis Carroll and The Hitchhiker's Guide must have spawned nearly as many quotable lines as Monty Python. In addition, like Carroll's own Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Hitchhiker's Guide also boasts a unique cast of bizarre and memorable characters. It may not have a hookah smoking caterpillar or a disappearing cat but it does have a two-headed, three-armed egomaniac called Zaphod Beeblebrox (Galactic President, super-thief and creator of the aforementioned pan-galactic gargle blaster!), a manically depressed robot named Marvin ("Life; who needs it?"!), and an absent-minded designer of planets named Slartibartfast ("It scares the willies out of me!").

A whole new life, stretching out ...

So how well does this stage production measure up to the other versions of Douglas Adams's whimsical masterpiece?

Mitch Benn (Merlin) with Geoff McGivern (Onegin) and Simon Jones (Shrinks) live on stage
Zaphod, Arthur and Ford. An infinitely
improbable combination.
The first point to make is that the production is not a fully staged dramatic performance. As the title suggests, the stage is set up like a live radio show, with a row of microphones lining the front of the stage and the actors stepping forward to read from scripts as and when required. A sound effects desk is off to one side in full view of the audience and there's even a live band. There are some concessions to the fact that the performance is theatrical (the occasional prop, the Vogons' masks, a life-sized Marvin puppet and - most importantly - Arthur Dent's iconic dressing gown!) but, by and large, this is radio. But live. In front of an audience.

The first act hurtles through much of the "classic" episodes from radio and television, possibly moving too fast to give the comedy as much room as it really needs to breathe, but - for the assembled faithful in the audience (myself included) - that's forgivable. There's a lot of material to squeeze in and if some has to be truncated or hurried in order to cover more ground, it's a small price to pay!

The second act, however, fares less well. In a frantic attempt to include something, no matter how little or irrelevant, from every book, spin-off and musical cash-in (even a single by Marvin not featured in any of the shows!), the production loses direction. The plot becomes rambling and incomprehensible. Even the scenes which are included are often shortened, their punchlines cut so the cast can stumble scrambling into another.

Sexy space babe Trillian (Sandra Dickinson) with Zaphod Beeblebrox (Mark Wing-Davey) and Ford Prefect (David Dixon)
Two-headed alien; sexy babe; and a robot. Everything a good
SciFi show needs. With a man in a dressing gown. 
Perhaps the most glaring example of a punchline sacrificed as a result of the show's random, patchwork approach to the source material is that, whilst the answer to "life, the universe and everything" (you know what that is, right?) is disclosed early in Act 1, the "ultimate question" behind that answer (the very question which we're told the Earth super-computer was created to find) is never mentioned in Act 2. Whether forgotten or discarded, the omission of that punchline leaves a huge gaping hole at the heart of the entire production. It's like sitting through the entirety of The Lord of the Rings and not being shown what happened to the Ring!

Stephen Moore voices the depressed (and depressing) robot Marvin
Marvin: the original paranoid
So much for the laws of physics

With a broadly satisfactory first act and a disconcertingly unfocused second, how then should this production of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy be remembered? Like the movie, I can't see it winning any new fans. The plot was just too scrambled and so much of the humour was marred by savage, injudicious editing and hasty delivery. However, my guess is that this show was never intended to appeal to the uninitiated. This is a show for the existing fan base. I doubt there were many in the audience last Sunday who weren't already familiar with one or other of the show's previous incarnations and, for them, there is a lot to enjoy.

It doesn't matter if some lines aren't delivered with perfect comic timing. The audience already knows them by heart and happily mouths each one along with the actors. Many of the key cast members are the original radio and TV actors, reprising their roles after a gap of more than 30 years. It's a joyful, joyous reunion and the audience is invited to be part of it. Just hearing Simon Jones (Arthur Dent) bemoan that he "never could get the hang of Thursdays" with perfect deadpan Britishness is enough to roll back the years, and there's simply no substitute for Stephen Moore (Marvin) miserably commenting on the sunset over an alien planet: "I've seen it; it's rubbish!"

Douglas Adams died in 2001 and, as the cast returns to the stage to take their bows, they turn and raise their arms, directing our attention to an image of Adams projected onto a screen above the stage. It's a fitting finale. As wonderful as the cast is, the real stars of The Hitchhiker's Guide will always be the author and the obvious delight he took in playing with the English language. If you're not familiar with the show already, the Radio Show Live is probably not the best of introductions to this SciFi Wonderland, but you really should seek out a copy of the original books or the TV or radio shows. Oh, and in case you have any difficulty understanding Adamsian English, don't forget to slip a Babel fish into your ear first!

What's your favourite version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? Book, film, TV, stage or radio show? Let us know. Oh, and if you've seen or are planning to see the UK stage version, let us know what you think. Was it as welcome as a towel? Or did it just hang in the air, the way that bricks don't?

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