A review of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (the play)

The play version of Douglas Adams’ 1987 novel, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (Simply referred to as “Dirk” in the United States, where brevity is king) is an award-winning production written by Arvind Ethan David and James Goss, and first performed on stage in 1995, to an audience including none other than Douglas Adams himself. To put things into perspective, I am about the same age as this play. I’d never had the chance to see it though until Saturday night, when me and my Grandparents went to Hertfordshire to see the Kings Langley Players’ version of it, directed by Sally-Anne Rafferty, who you may remember I interviewed recently.

A vital clue… Sean Lovell as Dirk Gently

So what is the play like? It begins with the titular holistic detective, Dirk Gently (Sean Lovell) introducing himself to the audience. He starts reciting Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, and tells us that we’re going to solve the mystery of what was going through his mind when he wrote this odd, yet strangely entrancing poem. In the process, we’ll have to sit through some seemingly unrelated and bizarre scenes, but Dirk assures us that everything is connected and everything matters, before loudly insisting that his expenses are “necessary and non-negotiable!” (So, no ticket refunds then)

After a brief and bizarre window four billion years into the past, (You can’t say Dirk didn’t warn us) the play transitions to a familiar scene from the book: The Coleridge dinner at St. Cedds college, Cambridge, where good-natured computer programmer Richard MacDuff (Jamie Yates), meets up with his old professor of chronology, “Reg” Urban Chronotis. (John Musker) Normally forgetful but cheerful, Reg suddenly starts to behave rather strangely and fearfully until he discovers that a horse has wandered into his bathroom. Richard then abruptly leaves when he remembers that he promised to take his girlfriend Susan Way (Lorraine Stanley) out with him to the dinner.

A troubled soul… Kareem Nasif monologues as Michael Wenton-Weakes.

In Richard’s absence, Susan decides to spend the evening with the thoroughly depressed Michael Wenton-Weakes, (Kareem Nasif) who is at a particularly low ebb after his beloved magazine Fathom has been purchased and transformed by Susan’s wealthy computer-magnate brother Gordon, (John Bradnum) from a financial sinkhole full of meandering think-pieces on the simpler ways of life into a successful and modern science and computing magazine, which appalls the technophobic Michael. Richard decides to enter Susan’s high-rise flat through the window, which is observed by Dirk, who phones up to offer him a few pointers on the rules of housebreaking. (“#1: Never answer the phone when on a job!”) Needless to say, Susan is not best pleased when she finally sees Richard, as it’s not the first time she’s been left hanging by her unreliable boyfriend.

Things take a turn when Gordon is murdered by a mysterious hooded figure hiding in the boot of his car, but although Gordon Way’s dead body (represented by a well-dressed dummy in a suit) falls out the back, Gordon himself (or rather, the ghostly spectre that was once Gordon) gets back up, spending the rest of the play in a Marty Hopkirk-esque white suit and face paint, as he tries in vain to make contact with the living. The rest of the play concerns Dirk trying to solve a number of strange mysteries that MacDuff came across the previous evening, both knowingly and unknowingly. Detective Sergeant Gilks (Gary Edgar) is assigned to solve the strange case, and is none too surprised to find that Dirk is involved too. Dirk has a fun chemistry with pretty much everyone he meets in the play, but his back and forth interactions with Gilks in particular are a delight to watch. A pleasantly unexpected gag comes when Gilks walks off-stage and gives instructions to two unseen subordinates named Bodie and Doyle, who were the main characters in the cult 1970’s British cop show The Professionals. (Of which I’m also a big fan)

Gilks (Gary Edgar) confronts Dirk (Sean Lovell) in Richard Macduff’s apartment.

Because of the way the play has been adapted, Dirk essentially becomes the main character, whereas in the novel we always saw him through Richard’s perspective. The events also seem to take place in the modern day, rather than 1987; the only thing that seems slightly anachronistic because of this is Richard spending 3 years at University trying to teach his computer to play “Three blind mice”; revolutionary at the time that Douglas wrote the novel but significantly less so in recent years. I think Arvind Ethan David must have been aware of this too, since Reg even brings up the prevalence of cloud computing and is impressed that, unlike his current students, Richard found a way to use computers to distract from his work rather than to help him finish it.

The costumes by Sophie Palumbo are definitely praise-worthy; in particular the multiple different outfits worn by Dirk’s long suffering secretary Janice Pearce (Julie Edgar), which are often bright and extravagant, perhaps indicating that Janice longs for better things but is trapped in Dirk’s office, desperately hoping that he will pay her wages one day. I liked Dirk’s outfit too, with his large brown jacket/overcoat and Tom Baker-esque scarf; very fitting given the Doctor Who origins of the novel that are still very evident in the play.

The stage was split into three sets: The centre, (Mainly used for scenes taking place in St. Cedds, Richard’s apartment, or Gordon Way’s stylish Mercedes Benz roadster) Dirk’s Detective Agency on the left, and Susan Way’s flat on the right. Prominently in the background is effectively an extremely fine-tuned powerpoint presentation created by staging and technical designer Ron Balmford; a huge Douglas Adams fan, who’s dedication shows in the final results. There are some nice subtle gags which are easy to miss, including a running gag about the anonymous location of the Detective Agency. They also use the screen extremely well to help illustrate slightly complicated sections of the plot, such as when Dirk figures out what the three questions asked by George III were. Some very fitting animation is used when Richard explains the dilemma with his sofa, as well as during sequences depicting time travel or the alien spaceship. The incidental music and sound effects actually impressed me even more than the visuals.

Dance time for Jamie Yates as Richard MacDuff. (None of this is real)

Speaking of which, a memorable sequence in the play (And one that Sally-Anne told me she had the most fun directing) is when Dirk hypnotises Richard into doing an elaborate musical number. All of the cast gets on stage and initiates a dance, which lasts about 2 minutes. It’s very out-of-nowhere and is essentially a workaround for a sequence from the books in which Richard is hypnotised into swimming in a canal, which is of course much harder to do on stage. Everybody did a great job, including Julie Edgar and Liz Hill on choreography, and I think what really sold it was Jamie Yates’ performance as MacDuff and how the dance seemed so hilariously out of character for him compared to his performance throughout the rest of the play, very much illustrating the point that Dirk was making. It was definitely his funniest moment in the play.

Reg (John Musker) serves Dirk (Sean Lovell) tea during the exciting and action-packed climax.

The two standout performers in my opinion were Sean Lovell as Dirk and John Musker as Reg. I think Dirk is by far the hardest part in the whole play, as there are long sections of complicated dialogue which Dirk has to reel off in energetic, quick-fire succession. There were occasions where Lovell stumbled slightly, but he would always pick himself up quickly and continue, and more importantly he never broke character in the process; I believed that he was Dirk throughout, and Lovell did a very good job getting across the confidence, snark, but also razor-sharp intellect of the character. My favourite moment would have to be when Dirk explains to Richard why Sir Issac Newton’s invention of the catflap was far more important than his discovery of gravity: “It is a rare mind indeed that can render the hitherto non-existent blindingly obvious.”, says Dirk, followed by him knocking on an invisible door to Reg’s study.

John Musker for his part excelled as Reg, and it helped that he also was given a lot of the best lines; for example, one moment that got perhaps the biggest laugh in the audience was when Reg explained that he only uses time travel because he can’t figure out how to tape programmes on his TV. Musker is perfectly cast and portrays the warmth, geniality and occasional forgetfulness of Reg with ease. I would also give an honourable mention to Kareem Nasif, a newcomer to the King’s Langley Players who hams it up as the wretchedly miserable Michael Wenton-Weakes. I think if they had made Michael too serious then the tone of the play would have been a bit too dark, so I felt Sally-Anne’s direction during his scenes was really strong, and Nasif handles the change that Michael goes through in the latter stages of the play with a lot of confidence and aplomb.

Reg (John Musker) attempts to cheer up Sarah (Emma Robbins) during the Coleridge dinner.

Also noteworthy was 8-year-old Emma Robbins in her first stage performance as the listlessly bored girl at the opening dinner whom Reg takes pity on and entertains with a seemingly innocent conjuring trick. What really impressed me was the comic timing of her physical performance; she always had her feet in the right place at the right moment, and none more so than when she broke from a freeze-frame to kick Dirk in the shins during one of his scene-setting monologues. Taking your first steps into Am-Dram can’t be easy and I think Sally-Anne and Alex Robbins (Emma’s Mum in both the play and real life) should be praised for avoiding the temptation to stage-manage her too much.

The ending of the play has an awful lot to wrap up. They do a good job of making it seem open-ended who Gordon’s killer might be, but I was able to guess it fairly easily since only one character was really given any motive. If there is one thing I would criticise it is that there are certain plot elements that get glossed over a bit too much because the second half is about 45 minutes compared to the 1 hour 25 minutes of the first half; some of the audience was confused as to the identity of a certain ghost, (Although personally I felt that was explained very clearly through the dialogue) the big one that my Grandmother mentioned was that it was unclear how exactly Richard’s sofa ended up in the stairwell due to the way that the climax is scripted. This is something that’s a lot easier to follow in the book, but in the play it’s glossed over very quickly, mainly because several of the time travel trips from the end of the book are condensed into one. What I wanted to know is why Gordon Way’s housekeeper (Paula Jeffs) is murdered, since she is not a witness to the murder and the killer didn’t really have a clear motivation to bump her off. But these are very minor complaints that never really spoilt my enjoyment of the play in the moment, they just seemed a little odd in retrospect.

Gilks (Gary Edgar) interviews Gordon Way’s housekeeper (Paula Jeffs) as part of his investigation, just before she is promptly murdered.

Unfortunately that was the final performance of the term by the King’s Langley Players, luckily however for those living in Tooting, Wandsworth, the Southside theatre is putting on their own production of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency from the 29th of May to the 1st of June. http://southsideplayers.co.uk/summer-production-dirk-gentlys-holistic-detective-agency/

As for the King’s Langley Players, they return from the 17th-19th of October, performing Alan Ayckbourn’s play “Neighbourhood Watch”. But overall I was very impressed by what I saw during my visit, and given the opportunity I’d be tempted to return sometime to watch them perform some none-Douglas Adams material, although if a play version is ever made of the Long Dark Teatime of the Soul then I would be curious and delighted to see Sean Lovell reprise his role as Dirk.

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