“Everyone’s dad exists as a kind of statue,” says Ben Norris. We imagine our parents frozen, unchanging, always striking the same pose in the background. Norris’s dad, though, is more of a statue than most. He’s an unmoving and unmovable man; a creature of habit, allergic to discussing his feelings. Norris desperately wants to connect with him, but he keeps knocking up against an unrelenting question mark. So he packs up, takes to the road, and goes on a backwards journey to all the places his father has ever lived, hoping that bricks and mortar will provide the answers that flesh and blood refuse. He sticks out his thumb and hopes for the best.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family is the story of Norris’s journey. It’s a knowingly “bildungsroman-esque” quest, the realisation of a very male desire for adventure and self-discovery. The reference points are Jack Kerouac and Into the Wild – though with less romance and more motorway service stations. And like the wanderings of Sal Paradise and Christopher McCandless, Norris’s expedition is as much about himself as anything else. His dad might be the starting point, but ultimately it’s only him out on the road, hitching lifts from Nottingham down to Wembley.
The focus is narrow, then, but charming with it. Norris isn’t blinkered in his self-questioning; he even asks, staring out at the audience, why anyone else would be interested in this personal, unextraordinary tale. The answer is in the telling. Norris is an instantly likeable performer, all easy charisma and unforced intimacy. He could just as easily be telling us a story down the pub. He has a way with words, too, injecting the mundane with hints of the poetic. Polly Tisdall’s simple staging, meanwhile, has just enough detail to conjure the trip, from illustrations to photographs to talismanic teddy bears and football shirts.
There’s a larger point in there somewhere, about this “generation of men who don’t ask questions”, but it never quite rises to the surface. What is it that seems to make masculinity and emotion incompatible, keeping these men constantly swerving from sentiment? It’s tied up with the same set of toxic expectations that push up male suicide figures and make a show like Bryony Kimmings’ and Tim Grayburn’s Fake It ’Til You Make It so necessary. Here, though, that bigger picture remains in the background, a frame for the much more intimate and specific story of one particular father and son.
He may think of him as a statue, but Norris’s dad is not made of stone. The hitchhiker’s real journey – and the one that resonates – is the realisation that his dad “lives and breathes”, and while he’s still around he can still change. Perhaps, as Norris puts it, “his indifference was unconditional”, but being there counts for something. They might fuck you up, your mum and dad, but that doesn’t have to be the end of the story.