By a totally staggering coincidence, 81 Renshaw – Liverpool’s newest and most exciting Arts Centre – is just across the road from the former site of Wilson’s, the independent bookstore whereas a Hitchhikers-obsessed youngster I once stood and stared at a poster announcing the publication of So Long And Thanks For All The Fish. Tonight, it’s playing host to a one-act play about how, thanks to Douglas Adams’ notoriously relaxed attitude to deadlines, there was nearly never a poster to see.
We Apologise For The Inconvenience takes place during a fraught episode when Adams’ agent locked him in a hotel room and refused to let him leave until he had finished the book. With his rigid schedule of long baths in chaos and not a single Dire Straits album to hand to distract him, Adams finds himself in conversation with a rubber duck, who encourages and insults him into digging deep for fresh inspiration. What emerges is a warm, witty portrait of a man who is blithe and arrogant about all the wrong things – as the duck reminds him, he made his actual fame and fortune on the back of reworked radio scripts – and insecure about his innate sense of comedy and profound ability to manipulate the English Language. It’s probably not difficult to work out how and where this all ends up, but even the most ardent fan of Tricia McMillan and company might well find themselves looking at certain of the book’s more contentious aspects in a new and more sympathetic light.
Writer Mark Griffiths – a lifelong Hitchhikers fan, and someone whose path through topical radio sketch shows in some ways mirrored Adams’ own – got the idea for We Apologise For The Inconvenience when he read a biography of the author describing the incident as resembling a two-hander play. Wisely resisting the temptation to fill the dialogue with quotations and references – though some familiar phrases and subtler nods to everything from Adams’ Mac evangelism to his subsequent quests to document endangered species are there for anyone who wants to pick up on them – this is instead an engaging look at the doubts and lack of self-belief of a writer who can suddenly no longer luxuriate in his famous quote about loving deadlines and “the whooshing noise they make as they go by”. Nor indeed luxuriate in his bath.
As Adams, Pete Gibson strikes the perfect note between condescending bravado and lack of faith in his own abilities, and throws in an impressively restrained yet spot on impersonation of John Cleese in a touching moment examining his perceived failure to live up to his idol. Clearly relishing the sarcastic and often surreal dialogue, the energetic Rachel Howard is a suitably combative and comic Duck – and, at one point, P.G. Wodehouse – and had the audience in stitches with her impressionistic physical responses to Adams’ flights of grandeur. The two are a genuinely effective combination and after forty five minutes of laughing along at their bickering, it’s joyous to witness their excitement at finally arriving at the off-the-wall ideas that will get the book completed.
Funny and inspiring in equal measure, We Apologise For The Inconvenience is a minor triumph that will hopefully have an accident with a few rubber bands, a liquid lunch and a particle accelerator, and find some deserved exposure beyond its current limited run.