In the days before the Internet, when men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri, libraries were the one place for all manner of audio and visual delights. Douglas Adams’ The Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy radio show cassettes were always a regularly borrowed item for my household, alongside the accompanying books, whilst our scratchy recording of the 1980s TV show still exists somewhere on a dusty old VHS tape. It was certainly a story that received repeat listening, reading and viewing over long summer holidays, and so it was nearly 30 years later that I finally ventured out to go back to where it all began with The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Radio Show, Live!
The script is unquestionably one of the finest pieces of comedic science fiction writing that the world has ever witnessed, drawing fans from all walks of life through its playful use of language and brilliantly British take on space and time travel after the seriousness of Star Trek. When the Hitchhiker’s story was further fleshed out in Adams’ series of novels, the whole fictional universe became even more fascinating, no doubt leading to the success of the BBC TV show, and eventually the big budget movie version in 2005.
But this night is about going back to the beginning and seeing once again the cast and crew who helped to create the phenomenon in the first place. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Radio Show: Live! features many of the surviving performers from that first radio show, pulled together by Adams’ long-time wingman Dirk Maggs. The production itself covers off much of the first book in its first act, whilst flitting amongst some of the more stand-out scenes from the rest of the increasingly inaccurately named trilogy in its second, with audience participation, songs, and audio and visual effects throughout.
Kicking off with a dressing gown-clad Simon Jones, the unmistakeable voice of Arthur Dent instantly brings a smile to the faces of the entire audience, and even though Geoff McGivern (Ford Prefect) isn’t as visually recognisable, the two entertainingly bounce off each other just as they did all those years ago. Appearances from Mark Wing-Davey as the grinning, double-headed, kilt-wearing Zaphod Beeblebrox and Susan Sheridan as Trillian show chemistry that hasn’t diminished over the past 30 years, and Toby Longworth is a brilliantly bumbling Slartibartfast.
Band leader and composing legend Philip Pope steps in throughout to play various additional characters, just as Maggs takes breaks from his drumkit to perform as a Foley artist in true radio show style. It’s great to see such an old skill hold its own alongside newer technology and the two combine for a show-stealing full-size Marvin the paranoid android puppet, voiced once more by a sadly absent Stephen Moore. There’s even a surprise cameo from Johnny Vegas as the main course at Milliways, which seems fitting in more ways than one.
As for the titular Guide itself, throughout the tour, a series of guest artists are taking up the mantle of Peter Jones who died over 12 years ago, and tonight’s voice of the book is, in many ways, a stroke of genius. Jon Culshaw produces a spookily spot-on impression of Jones, but now and again he does tend to lapse into his Tom Baker shtick which feels a little forced and disrupts the show’s flow. The audience generally seem to appreciate the tangent, as they do his Sir Patrick Moore voice, but I couldn’t help but think the show could have done without the distraction, and it seemed the band thought the same as they had to reset to the start of the piece they were playing each time Culshaw broke away from the script.
Despite this, Culshaw copes brilliantly with the elaborate language and throughout the show you can tell what fun the entire cast, both old and new are having. Despite a few slips of the tongue, the performance is a brilliantly staged, energetic one, and truly brings to life Adams’ eye for the ridiculous. Maybe the show would have benefited a little from more retro Book visuals on the screen, akin to the brilliant animations of the TV show, but this a minor quibble with a superbly entertaining show.
When the performance draws to a close, you can’t help but wonder just what other delights Douglas Adams could have provided us with if he hadn’t passed away at such a young age, but the show isn’t just a nostalgia trip, it’s a celebration of Adams’ timeless writing, and it is fitting that at the show’s close, the legendary author gets as much applause as the cast do.