I had the pleasure of catching the Hitchhiker’s Live radio show that is currently touring theaters in the United Kingdom. I thought fans who can’t be in the UK for the tour might like to hear a little about it. My kids aren’t old enough to appreciate the hilarious subtlety of Douglas Adams’ writing, and my wife just doesn’t get it, so I went on my own, but found hundreds of like-minded souls at the theater waiting for me!
Adapted and directed by Dirk Maggs, who oversaw the radio adaptations of books three to five of the “trilogy”, it stars most of the original cast, including Simon Jones, Geoff McGivern, Mark Wing-Davey, Susan Sheridan and (via the magic of pre-recorded MP3 files) Stephen Moore.
The show is slickly done. The stage set-up is compact, with a note-perfect five-piece band at the back, alongside a second stage on which is set a leather armchair, standard lamp and tea trolley holding an old-fashioned British wireless. With the deaths of both of the Voices of the Books from the radio series, Peter Jones and William Franklyn’s roles are filled by a variety of “Guest Books” at different shows, including Billy Boyd, Terry Jones, Neil Gaiman, and Douglas Adams’ original collaborator, John Lloyd. Above them are screens on which graphics are projected throughout the show, from imagery hinting at where we are (such as grimy, industrial light fittings inside the hold of the Vogon ship), to Guide entries, to song lyrics.
At the front are six microphones, and a foley desk where sound effects are produced live on stage. The show begins with a rock music overture from the band, which eventually morphs into the familiar strains of the Eagles’ Journey of the Sorcerer, the famous Hitchhiker’s theme.
And there, suddenly, on stage are Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, in dressing gown and trenchcoat, and from their mouths pour the warm voices so recognisable to the fans in the auditorium that have enjoyed the multiple manifestations of Hitchhiker’s since it first made its unassuming appearance on British radio over three decades ago.
The first half of the show is a truncated version of the story up until it plays out on the planet Magrathea. We’re in familiar territory here, and the pleasure comes from hearing the original cast perform the famous words in person, right in front of us. A high point is the appearance of Marvin. We hear Stephen Moore’s wonderfully droll droning tones, but we see a beautifully designed life-size, articulated model of the robot, who is walked around the stage by a puppeteer in black, accompanied by the sounds of bicycle pumps from the foley artist. Everything about the show is an homage to the golden age of radio, and Marvin is the most obvious manifestation–his feet made from mufflers, his arms and legs from microphones. His torso sports old tape spools and his head turns out to be the radio that had previously sat on the Voice of the Book’s tea trolley (now replaced by a bowl of petunias).
In the first half, the audience could probably have recited the lines along with the actors. The second half, in contrast, gives us some new material, including a great sketch at the Vogon Planning Council Meeting where each member is eventually shot for coughing. Maggs has done a terrific job of taking about four radio-series’-worth of content and boiling it down to a new story–not easy but done very well, inevitably through a kind of “greatest hits” format, partly compered by Max Quordlepleen at Milliways. Wisely, Arthur mentions that huge chunks of his life seem to be missing, which the audience appreciates. Happily, Douglas Adams’ performance of Agrajag is retained, and Samantha Beart does a terrific turn as Random Dent, allowing Arthur to come good on his promise in the first half, forbidding her to ever marry a Vogon. Kudos, too, for the versatile supporting players, Philip Pope, Andrew Secombe and Toby Longworth, who gamely flit from part to part, holding the whole cosmic enchilada together.
The cast rarely put a foot wrong. If small mistakes are made, they’re recognised and made part of the joke, and this makes for a warm, relaxed evening’s entertainment. It feels like the cast have been friends for decades, and I guess they probably have. There are ad libs, and new lines referencing news stories, so it feels as fresh and relevant today as ever. And Mark Wing-Davey’s Zaphod still comes across as the hoopiest frood on the planet–at one point he only has to say one word, “When”, but does so exuding such confident coolness that he brings the house down.
Ultimately, we get some of the most beautifully crafted wit ever committed to paper, delivered to perfection by a highly talented cast. Throughout the show are nods to all aspects of Douglas Adams’ writing, from Doctor Who to Last Chance to See to Starship Titanic. There are lines left in there that aren’t essential to the story, but the fans appreciate them (“I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle” receives only a brief lighting effect, and no further reference to it is made, but the audience knows that its utterance has just started an intergalactic war). We even get a few bars of Marvin’s hit record from the 1980’s. At the very end, the cast make an appropriately understated but respectful nod to the much-missed writer, without whom none of this clever hilarity would have been possible. We leave appreciating Douglas’s genius anew, and hence understand life on this crazy ball of rock a little better than we did. If you do get a chance to catch the show, it’s well worth it.
For more information on the show, check out the official Hitchhiker’s Live website. And if you’ve seen the live show (or heard the original radio series), come on by the GeekDad Community and share your experiences with everyone!