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In Association with
The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy Radio Show Live!
Opera House Manchester, 3rd July 2012

review by J.C. Hartley

With most of the surviving original cast, a live band, and guest performers including Neil Gaiman, Terry Jones, Roger McGough, and Hugh Dennis as the voice of the book, this national tour is a tempting package for fans of a certain age. Of course, age shouldn't enter into it - as a fairly broadly representative audience demographic at Manchester's Opera House proved. We were lucky at Manchester as our guest narrator/ voice of the book was Jon Culshaw, who was able to provide an excellent impression of the late great Peter Jones, the original voice, as well as channelling Tom Baker, Patrick Moore, Professor Brian Cox, and David Attenborough. Johnny Vegas also put in an appearance as a talking cow, offering diners recommendations as to his best cuts, at Milliways the eponymous restaurant at the end of the universe.

The show's original writer Douglas Adams should be the patron saint of writers everywhere. Notoriously lazy and 'last minute' he wrote a work that spun out across various media, earning him justifiable kudos and royalties in its various formats. Radio shows, novels, the increasingly inaccurately named, and increasingly almost unbearably bleak, Hitchhiker's trilogy, a TV show, computer games, audio-books, CDs of the original series, a mainstay for my family in long drives south for Cornish holidays, and posthumously a hit-and-miss kind of film adaptation. This ability to stretch an idea in various formats revealed itself in Adams' writing for Doctor Who, where plot elements for the 'Shada' story episodes (abandoned because of a strike at the BBC), cropped up in his renowned 'City Of Death' storyline, again for Doctor Who, and once more in his first 'Dirk Gently' novel.

The history of the series, and the various versions, must contribute, particularly in the minds of people of a certain age, to quantum uncertainty about what is canon, or is it just me. I've listened to the radio show and the aforementioned CD release, but not for some years, I've read the books, famously reading Life, The Universe And Everything holed-up in an Amsterdam hotel room unable to leave because of a surfeit of Holland skunk, and I watched on TV, and saw the film. Consequently, the whole vast baroque conglomeration now conforms to parallel world theory, and this adaptation for the stage taps into that diversity, not, it has to be said, always with complete success.

The show opened with the live band (sorry I can't find any details of the musicians, not when a programme cost 10), playing a tremendous cover of the Pink Floyd's One Of These Days; sat in the back of the stalls, under the roof formed by the gallery, the acoustics were tremendous. Some of the mechanics of the Hitchhiker's universe were then filled in by Culshaw's voice of the book, and then we were pretty much off. Frequent recourse to the book, funny as it was and originally so effective on the radio, sadly did much to slow the pace of the first half. This first session, up to an interval, saw Arthur Dent, the last surviving Earthman, saved from the destruction of his planet by alien Ford Prefect, captured by Vogons, rescued by fugitive President Zaphod Beeblebrox, and introduced to the true purpose of his world and his race on the planet-building world of Magrathea. We met Trillion, Marvin the paranoid android, Slartibartfarst, and heard my favourite line in the whole series, "You choose a cold night to visit our dead planet"; don't ask me why, it has just always held some deep philosophical significance for me. This performance pretty much followed the radio show, novel, TV show, and film versions; the second half was to be a completely different kettle of Babel fish.

With so much material to choose from I believe adapter/ director Dirk Maggs then made what is referred to in tennis circles as 'an unforced error'. Instead of focussing on the coherence and structure of the original radio series, and telling an admittedly abbreviated story, which would have been perfectly satisfying to a supportive and amiable audience, Maggs attempted to contain something of the vast and mind-boggling Hitchhiker's multiverse in the remaining 90 minutes or so. The resultant mishmash, not without its comedic highlights, lost any semblance of plot, contained some rather flat and embarrassing moments and, despite the sympathy of the fans, must have produced a certain amount of impatience in minds even less critical than my own.

A laser-cannon attack on Magrathea sends our heroes spinning away through time and space. Arthur has his confrontation with Agrajag, the character for whose death he is continually responsible, Ford steals the Hitchhiker's guide mark II, Zaphod mixes a pan-galactic gargle-blaster at Milliways, the characters are reunited, Trillion introduces Arthur to his daughter Random, Marvin sings his hit-single, the killer-robots from Krikket are introduced via a Buddy Holly style musical interlude (geddit!), the Earth is saved, then doomed, then saved, and Arthur is finally sent back in time to live his whole life over again, or something. At times I felt myself asking if any of this stuff was original Douglas Adams, and well yes, I've checked and it is, but cramming a career-defining piece of work into 90 minutes of the second half did nobody any favours.

In defence of the adaptation, I'm not as familiar with the books and the later radio adaptations as I was, I've done a bit of revision for this review and I can see what Dirk Maggs was trying to do, it was just my feeling on the night that things got a bit messy and instead of a steadily increasing dramatic pace, or even a 'Perils of Pauline' sequence of cliff-hangers, the quick-quick-slow parade of sketches often fell a little bit flat. There was however some very funny stuff.

A word about the audience, there were some dressing-gowns on show, and oversized 'Don't Panic' mouse-mats, and undersized towels, had been purchased at the concession stand. There was more merchandise in the auditorium than among a party of Japanese tourists visiting a home game at Old Trafford. The chap next to me, no doubt concerned at my naturally glum seen-it-all-before critic's face, asked me during the interval 'Are you enjoying yourself now?' 'Yes', I said, 'It's great', when really I wanted to deliver Simon Pegg's "You weren't there" Star Wars rant from Spaced. Walking down Deansgate after the show, complaining to my companions that, just because I wasn't snorting with laughter and whooping like a calving seal all the time, didn't mean I wasn't enjoying myself, my daughter took great pleasure in pointing out that the young chap in question was following behind no doubt listening to my scorn. Hard lesson; had to be learned.

Not a bad night, great venue, worth the money. My abiding impression, and this is perhaps the true measure of the experience, I'm sure he had his faults but what a fabulously funny, talented, and humane man Douglas Adams was.

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy radio show live!

TV adaptation

Movie version

The Science Of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy (book review)

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