TOUR UPDATE: September 2013 dates now at www.hitchhikerslive.com
Perhaps the oddest thing about the live stage version of Hitchhiker’s Guide I watched last Friday (well, apart from Phil Jupitus performing the Dish Of The Day dressed in some cast-offs from Daffyd, the only gay in the village) was that the biggest laughs weren’t provided by Douglas Adams. Instead a topical joke about Jimmy Carr’s tax evasion and some ad-libbing by the guy playing Max Quordlepleen provided the only true guffaws. Adams’s own lines – the most famous of which I’d assumed would be received with the kind of fervour that usually erupts when a rock band plays their biggest hits live in concert – seemed merely to elicit polite titters.
Hitchhiker’s Live was not the experience I was expecting.
Let me start by adding a couple of provisos. My personal reaction to the show seem to be very much at odds what I’ve been reading elsewhere on the internet, and to the reaction of people whom I talked to after the show. Everyone else seems utterly thrilled by the live staging. I was left baffled and largely unmoved. I’m not going to claim they were all kidding themselves (I hate reviews that take that tone), and am genuinely happy others are loving it. I, though, felt a little cold towards the whole thing.
I feel I should also clarify my level of Hitchhiker’s worship. I am not a fan. That doesn’t mean I don’t like it (for some reason these days, not being a fan of something seem to immediately equate to hating it in some people’s mind, and that’s not the case at all). I love the original radio show and the TV programme. I’ve given some very positive reviews to the later radio series. It’s a franchise I thoroughly enjoy, but I wouldn’t term myself a “fan”. I don’t know the franchise inside out, and I know for certain a couple of in-jokes in the live stage show passed me by (though I did pick up on the fact that the list of alternate animals available as “dish of the day” were all featured in Adams’s Last Chance To See ).
First up, I’ll happily admit it was it was a thrill to see those familiar faces and hear those familiar voices (Mark Wing Davey, Simon Jones, Goeff McGivern, Susan Sheridan) acting out Hitchhiker’s again metres away from my face (even if some of the characters – I'm thinking particularly of Ford and Trillian – are underused; Eddie the ship's computer seems to have more lines than Susan Sheridan).
My main problem with The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Radio Show Live was that it didn’t quite seem to know what it was trying to be – a script reading, a theatrical dramatisation or a comedy revue. And each of those elements seemed to fight against the others.
The painfully obvious thing was that Adams’s witty, inventive radio scripts were clearly meant for the radio, and didn’t have the pacing, rhythm or delivery required for a theatre performance. This may not have been a problem if the evening had been presented exclusively as a live script reading – we could have all bought into that.
Read our interview with Simon Jones
But by trying to beef the event up into more of a theatrical experience, this rather swamped the words rather than enhancing them. Having the sound effects produced live on stage was a clever idea, but screwed up the flow of the lines. Highly edited scenes were rattled out in rapid succession meaning a lot of actor entrances and exits. Some musical numbers – while paying homage to lyrics that do appear in the book and the TV show – jarred with the rest of the performance and turned it into a pantomime (even worse, though the audience was encouraged to join in, few actually did making these moments fall flat). Some comedy slapstick by the extras seemed a little half-hearted and distracting.
The overall feeling was a show that muffled its greatest asset – Douglas Adams’s word – in favour of broadstrokes humour that didn’t feel especially Adams-ish. On the other hand, as I’ve already mentioned, these did tend to get the biggest laughs.
While it’s doubtful there were many in the audience who didn’t have that level familiarity, the nagging worry remains that if somebody new were to watch Hitchhiker’s Live , they’d probably come away thinking, “Yeah, a couple of good lines but can’t see why people call this a comedy classic.” And that’s a sad state of affairs. Taken on its own merits, it’s probably a less successful introduction to the world of Hitchhiker’s than the movie version. It preaches to the converted.
Read our interview with Dirk Maggs
There were moments, though, when it came alive and truly sparkled. Marvin was brilliantly realised (we won’t give away how, but it’s low tech and utterly charming), and his gloomy one-liners worked perfectly on stage. The Agrajag scene – with an umbrella playing the paranoid Dent-hater – was hilarious. The on-stage live band was excellent. The “Dish Of The Day” scene was inventively reimagined (and, one supposes, will be different at each performance). The Vogons were fun.
But mostly, I was sitting, desperately wanting to love it, but actually feeling a tad embarrassed. Especially during the songs…