The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Radio Show Live
Manchester Opera House
Monday 2 July
The sic fi comedy that packed a lot of depth is back in Manchester as a play based on the radio series. If you can follow that concept you are already halfway there says Rob Haynes
In 1977, when Douglas Adams was 25, the spacecraft Voyager fired out of the earth’s atmosphere and, via a gravitational slingshot around Saturn, headed off on a trajectory out of the solar system. A year later, on a somewhat more modest scale, Adams’ sci-fi comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy began its own lengthy cultural journey. The original revered BBC radio series debuted in 1978, followed thereafter by four more novels, records, a TV series and a towel.
Adams’ horribly premature death in 2001 has done nothing to prevent, or even slow, the progress of his most beloved creation. The much delayed cinema version was released in 2005, the final three books in the series were belatedly adapted to radio, and there was even an officially sanctioned sequel by fantasy author Eoin Colfer. And now in a neat piece of cosmic circle-completing, this stage show reunites the principals of the original radio cast, creating an evening of warm nostalgia for a story of undiminished charm.
There, basking in the affectionate glow of a full Opera House crowd, is Simon Jones as Arthur Dent, the ultimate Englishman abroad, clad in his dressing gown and slippers on an unending search for a decent cup of tea – the fact that Jones is now grey and bald merely adds to his character’s air of general haplessness. A still bohemian Mark Wing-Davey continues to definitively embody Zaphod Beeblebrox, and Geoff McGivern and Susan Sheridan enthusiastically reprise Ford and Trillian. In a very nice touch, the perpetually doomed Agrajag is voiced by Adams himself from the radio adaptation tapes.
Reviving the radio show in the internet era is, of course, an endearingly retro move. It’s possible that the jokes about humanity’s love of digital watches may well be approaching obsolescence, but the production cheerfully embraces the mixture of hi-tech and low throughout the evening. The earth is destroyed within seconds of the show opening by Jones and McGivern running onstage pointing skywards and shouting ”Ëaaaargh!’. Actors read from scripts and wear Vogon masks where appropriate. A row of onstage microphones and a sound effects desk are augmented by a projection screen and occasional puppetry (Zaphod’s second head and most notably a rapturously received Marvin, lugubriously voiced by the absent Stephen Moore). It all works.
True, time and repetition have rendered a fair few of the jokes more comfortable than funny. Adams’ humour was never of the quick-fire punchline variety anyway, but it’s rare tonight that the audience are reduced to helpless laughter. Instead the script wraps the theatre in a comfortable familiarity, much in the manner of the trademark dressing gown sported by Jones. Dirk Maggs (who also adapted Adams’ Dirk Gently books for TV) has taken a brave stab at condensing the various versions of the story into a single plot,a task surely akin to arm-wrestling an especially devious space octopus. The first book is crammed into the show’s first half, and then after the intermission a diverse selection of scenes from the later novels are bolted together, even fitting in the parallel realities of the final ”ËMostly Harmless’, but stopping short of Adams’ bleak, apocalyptic ending.
The voice of The Book changes each night on the tour. Tonight it’s an occasionally uncertain John Challis (Only Fool’s and Horses’ Boycey), who gets away with committing a cardinal error of mispronouncing Zaphod – other cities will get the soothing narration of Neil Gaiman, Roger McGough or Andrew Sachs. Johnny Vegas stumbles onstage unannounced to perform a cameo as the willingly suicidal Dish of the Day, and predictably proceeds to ad-lib the other actors into apprehensive silence. A couple of late musical numbers seem crowbarred in to take advantage of the onstage band (with director Maggs on drums) rather than of any actual necessity, but really, critical dissection feels a little pointless – tonight is a celebration as heartfelt in its own way as the Stone Roses reunion up the road yesterday (but with more civilised toilet arrangements).
This year, scientists expect Voyager will leave the solar system. Meanwhile Adams’ work maintains its own momentum, propelled ever onwards by its author’s warm-hearted genius and the Infinite Improbability Drive he implanted into the imaginations of his audience.