Escapism is something we have all become particularly familiar with over this past year. For many of us, lockdown was a time of Netflix binges, National Theatre at Home screenings, and epic rewatches of old movie favourites. The power of story telling and its ability to transport one’s mind away from the stresses of reality were most potently felt in this time of COVID, and the genres of sci-fi and fantasy hold a particularly strong resonance with the act of imaginary escape. Yet, perhaps ironically, good science fiction has the ability to explore taboo subjects and hold up a mirror to our society in a way that many genres struggle with; the allegories and metaphors of alien worlds allows for a certain objective distance for the reader, making space for the kinds of detailed introspection that can alter one’s perceptions of our own world. But as science fiction narratives go, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy franchise is perhaps one of the most brilliantly weird of the lot. With all its Babel fish, Vogan poetry and improbability drives, I don’t think anyone would quite expect it to be a mirror to everyday human experience, but Tea Stain Theatre accomplishes exactly this with their new show, Hitchhiker.
Written and directed by Jessy Roberts, Hitchhiker follows sound engineering student, Dougie (played by Joe Welch) after dropping out of his university course and moving back home with his mother and much younger brother, Adam. As Dougie struggles to adjust to living back home, with his child minding duties of Adam causing particular tensions between him and his mother, we are thrown into the world of Arthur Dent and the Hitchhiker’s Guide as our hero tries to escape the humdrum banality of his domestic life. But as Dougie’s relationship with his brother grows, and his self produced audio drama creation takes a disturbing turn, the truth behind his undergraduate degree abandonment is revealed and the storming emotions that bubble beneath the cool waters of this young man’s apparent apathy are given their space to rage.
The balance of humour and pain are handled with utter precision within the script, and Welch’s easy naturalism fits within the framework of this beautiful, sort-of love letter to Douglas Adams’ work. Adams had a way of turning the ordinary into the extraordinary and the extraordinary into the ordinary, and Roberts’ script perfectly captures this essence. The reveals of Dougie’s past are handled with expert care, pealing back the layers of what initially appears to be a callous lack of compassion to in fact be the residual trauma of a difficult adolescence. Dougie isn’t a wholly likeable character, but in the post-Fleabag theatre world, it’s interesting to see these darker shades of emotional turmoil expressed by a young man who does eventually try to redeem himself. Though the ending somewhat loses its punch, the nihilistic optimism of Generation Z is beautifully and candidly explored in this piece. While the script does not forgive Dougie for his mistakes, there is an uplifting sense of hope as the lights go down for the last time on stage, and the iconic strains of the Hitchhiker’s Guide theme tune play out to the close, and we are left to consider that life is not always about clear beginnings, middles and ends, but rather, it is a continuum for learning, growth and change.