“It’s 1984 and the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, is in trouble. Famously bad with deadlines, Adams has been sequestered away to a London hotel by his publisher to finish his new book, which is already months late. But with a whole universe of distractions – including a talking plastic duck who seems to know a worrying amount about him – finishing the book seems infinitely improbable…”
This play is fun. Really fun. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly fun it is.
Some people turn a drama into a crisis. Mark Griffiths has managed to turn a crisis into a comedy, filled with belly laughs, pathos, and an existential crisis thrown in for good measure. We Apologise For The Inconvenience is the story of Douglas Adams, a 6’5″ ape descendent, and someone is trying to drive a bypass through his writer’s block.
The play is based around the real-life events surrounding Adams’ struggles to finish – or even start – the fourth book in the increasingly-inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy of novels. Desperate for the manuscript to be written, Adams’ publisher at the time – Sonny Mehta – locked him in a suite at the Berkeley Hotel for two weeks, as the final, final, absolutely final deadline for publication of So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish began to hove into view – and then whoosh past.
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Griffiths uses this as the jumping-off point for a fictionalised account of what took place behind closed doors, as Douglas Adams struggled to come to terms with the one bit of being a writer he simply could not stand – the writing. Adams’ main methods of dealing with a lack of progress were to drink tea and take a prodigious amount of baths, and the piece opens with him returning from the bathroom after a soak of several hours.
This gives us the delightful conceit of having Adams – played here by Adam Gardiner – spending the entire time in a dressing gown and towel, a nice visual reminder of the attire worn throughout Hitchhiker’s Guide by his hero, Arthur Dent. Adams, we find, is a man who really knows where his towel is, but not, alas, his inspiration. In just 45 minutes, we get to see a clever deconstruction not only of the man himself, but also of the very art of writing, and the labours which go into creating works of fiction.
The staging of the play is very minimalistic, with few props, the only scenery of note being a chair, on which we frequently find Adams procrastinating wildly, and trying every displacement technique in the book to try and stave off having to actually start the dreaded process of turning his thoughts into prose. Props-wise, the most notable one to be featured is a yellow plastic duck, which actually turns out to be the co-lead in this two-hander. Yes, a plastic duck. No, I know what you’re thinking, but bear with me here.
Said duck – performed with a gleefully manic energy by Rob Stuart-Hudson when it quickly becomes manifested in the form of a person – represents Adams’ id, or ego, or even his own personal Jiminy Cricket. The duck is there to chide Adams for not being able to do the one thing asked of him as a novelist, and continually pokes and prods him out of his inertia, with jibes about how he isn’t as prolific as his idol, PG Wodehouse, or how he’ll never be his hero, John Cleese. In fact, it even takes him to task for being derivative, and plagiarising his own material, pointing out that maybe what Adams really needs to do is come at the problem laterally, by actually writing something totally original and wholly unexpected.
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The sheer affection for Adams and his pantheon of works is evident, and Mark Griffiths is clearly a man who knows his subject matter intimately, throwing in enough nods not only to Hitchhiker’s Guide, but also Adams’ life as a whole, touching on things that he ends up doing later on, such as writing Last Chance To See with Mark Carwardine. We also get references to his love of technology, particularly his being an early adopter of Apple products, years before the iPod, iPad and iPhone et al. were even a hint of a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye.
However, this is all done deftly enough that you don’t need to know the intricacies and minutiae of Adams the man, as everything is fully explained for the benefit of the non-aficionados in the audience, and We Apologise works as a self-contained piece. Given the short run-time, Griffiths shows that brevity really is the soul of wit, and in three-quarters of an hour, we hurtle at breakneck speed through many different topics, yet all of them flow perfectly organically, and the audience manages to keep pace through the various shifts and gear changes.
The contrast between the stiff Britishness of Adams, counterpointed against the brash, gaudy Americanisms of the duck’s default persona, leads us into the sort of comedic clash of opposing personalities best evidenced in The Odd Couple, Steptoe And Son, and Red Dwarf. The confined setting – taking place solely within the three walls of a hotel room (Adams often breaks the fourth wall to directly address the audience) – is also in the best tradition of these sorts of shows, with the conflict between the two leads being driven by the fact that they’re inexorably bound together, for better or worse.
Gardiner manages to make the fictionalised version of Adams into a living, breathing character in his own right, rather than going down the route of trying to do a straight impersonation, and the show is all the better for it. Stuart-Hudson is a real revelation, bouncing around the stage with the verve and manic kinetic energy required to steer things forward at the pace required to successfully cover so much ground in such little time. When the duck briefly morphs into PG Wodehouse, Stuart-Hudson manages to do so much with what suddenly becomes a much smaller performance, with a raise of the eyebrow here, a tilt of the pipe there, but all executed with exquisite comic timing.
The whole show is a perfect love letter to Douglas Adams, while managing to still be wildly entertaining in its own right. Such is the attention to detail for the devotees of Adams’ work that the play is beautifully bookended by computer animations in the exact style of Rod Lord’s work on the Hitchhiker’s Guide TV series, perfectly recreated by Andrew Orton, who had previously put together a clever and entertaining YouTube video called The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Daleks, so he was the natural choice for the job.
Having had a limited run in Manchester earlier on in 2018, the three performances in Birmingham are a taster for what will hopefully be a sizeable tour of the UK next year. Keep your ears to the ground, and make sure you get along to see the show if you can. Your funny bone will love you for the rest of your life.
We Apologise For The Inconvenience by Room 5064 Productions was at the Old Joint Stock Theatre, Birmingham, on 20 & 21 October 2018.