The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family
19th October – Farnham Maltings
The lights are soft and low. The stage is bare save for a few choice items. A lone performer begins to speak, breaking the silence, crossing the void between spectator and speaker. You begin to realize this is not anything radical or new – nothing to fear –it is, in fact, the oldest mode of storytelling in the book. It is not easy to do this, to mesmerize and captivate with the voice alone, to tell a story using only a body and words, it is rather like singing a cappella. Luckily, we are in safe hands. This performer knows what he is doing. This performer is as confident as a septuagenarian rockstar, but without forfeiting any of the organic emotion which imbues his storytelling with such potent urgency.
Ben Norris is a poet – written word, spoken word, and perhaps most importantly, unspoken word. There are passages of unadorned scene-setting, telling us about his journey, what inspired him to create The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family, and why, hilariously, his show has almost nothing to do with Douglas Adams at all. Amidst these well-wrought passages are poems, imbedded into the storytelling like self-contained emblems. He has learned from masters such as Buddy Wakefield, the American poet so famous for performances in which one poem flows seamlessly into another, only, Ben’s work is far more emotive rather than ideological, and hence leaves a deeper mark.
His ‘one man show’ is, to my mind, not really a show, it’s an epic poem about an epic quest to reconnect with his father, a man he at once admires but never understood nor felt understood by; his plan is to make a journey across England, stopping at all the places his father lived, a pilgrimage North along the M1 towards Wembley Stadium where an iconic game of football took place, one that Ben never saw but feels like he did because it was one of the few times his father revealed his true emotions. In choosing these deeply personal, microcosmic theme, Ben reminds us that the epic literature of the past is also more intimate and personal than we perhaps realize: Odysseus’s journey is not to slay monsters and win fame but to find and finally reconnect with his estranged wife Penelope and his son Telemachus– a theme more confluent with Ben’s journey than perhaps he even realizes. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family is never pretentious, but it is self aware, pausing at times to remark on the desperation and foolishness of such a journey. It does not cleave to pretentious ideals and high-fluting language inaccessible to the common individual. It is subtle, nuanced, the odd para-rhyme or cadence resonating on the ear, resolving something, just as Ben strives to resolve the dissonance between father and son.
I have said it is the oldest form of storytelling, and for the most part it is, but that does not mean he also utilizes props and small technological enhancements to amplify the power of certain scenes, to tell his story in a way that is relevant to today. From something as simple as a T-shirt change signaling the start of a new day as Ben walks us through his journey, to two pairs of lights becoming car headlights, the simplest prop placements combined with his language render scenes in the audience’s mind as vividly as video. And speaking of video, Ben utilises this tool, showing us snippets from his journey, photographs of those people he met and who gave him a lift to the next service station or city. The video is effortlessly interwoven with the live action, and makes the journey feel all the more real, an authentic human experience we can relate to. Then there’s the music – all chosen from his father’s legendary mix-tape, strangely outdated on the ears but still screaming into the present as they are given new light by Ben’s intimate storytelling.
As Ben describes the people he’s met (and sometimes impersonates them to endearing, hilarious effect) and we see them on the screen, we glimpse something of the art of storytelling, of how real experience shapes a story, and how reality is often too fragmented and chaotic and so must be translated to be comprehended. This leads to moments of sublime beauty, such as when Ben tells us about his first lift, a ‘kiwi’ consumer-scientist, who tells him that your tastebuds switch off after the first few sips – and Ben remarks, quietly, about how he wonders what ’30 years of cohabitation’ would mean for someone’s ‘tastebuds’, whether it would start to taste ‘bland’. He is referring to his father and mother here and their acrimonious break up, but he does not need to explain, the metaphor explains itself and hits home like a sledgehammer.
But this is not a depressing, modernistic piece in which all meaning is nullified, though it certainly plumbs the depth of grief. Ben’s journey is full of laughter and hope and perhaps the glimmer that against all odds poetry itself might well be the bridge that has crossed the gap between father and son. Perhaps most powerfully of all Ben’s journey is not just an attempt to understand his father, but also himself, his mother and everyone he meets on his journey, an attempt to delve into the innate human concern with where we come from and who we are. Poignant, moving, funny, and full of Ben’s unique combination of vibrancy, wit and intellect, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family is not to be missed by anyone who has ever wanted to reconnect and better understand their roots, or more importantly, themselves.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family is touring the UK, with dates in October through to November. For more information please go to www.thehitchhikersguidetothefamily.com
Review by Joseph Sale