Touring – reviewed at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
There is a depth and grit to Touching The Void at the Lyceum that threatens to carry all before it.
The co-production with Bristol Old Vic, the Royal & Derngate Northampton and Fuel is based on the memoir of climber Joe Simpson. His story of survival and impossible decisions when a climb in the Andes goes wrong has been a celebrated book and film.
David Greig’s adaptation has a couple of obvious problems to overcome. The first is that a story set largely on the side of a mountain is going to be impossible to represent physically in a theatre. Director Tom Morris and designer Ti Green have, however, fashioned a spectacle that is arresting and at times truly astonishing.
Items of furniture stand in for rocks, and a flat stage is thoroughly convincing as a mountain side. If all of this brings to mind the best ‘let’s do the show right here’ ethic of touring theatre, a huge suspended structure of metal and paper, at once apparently solid and treacherously unreliable, is a far more ambitious effort that works equally well, with the aid of the icy clarity of Chris Davey’s lighting.
Sasha Milavic Davies’ movement direction is outstanding, while Jon Nicholls’ sound design makes clever use of Simpson’s Desert Island Discs choices.
The second drawback to the story – that so many people know what is going to happen – is one that is met slightly less satisfactorily. It is not much of a spoiler to say that the play opens with a framing device that seems designed purely to wrong foot those who are familiar with the outcome. While ingenious, this does not quite satisfy.
Similarly, the demands of a play – to feature dialogue and explore the psychology of the characters– work against a story that largely depicts one man on his own. Greig’s adaptation gets round this in a variety of ingenious ways that keep the narrative driving forward.
However, the desire to find a counterpart to the astonishing visual element does lead Greig to be too self-consciously epic at times. While this is a register that he has shown himself well capable of in the past, there are a couple of occasions – such as when attempting to explain the pull of climbing to non-climbers – where it verges on the glib.
Patrick McNamee, Josh Williams, Fiona Hampton and Edward Hayter. Pic Geraint Lewis
It rarely detracts from the effect of a notably well-cast production, however. Josh Williams is both engaging and believably extreme as Joe, while Edward Hayter gives his climbing partner Simon a suitably glacial hinterland.
Fiona Hampton, as Joe’s sister Sarah, provides a much-needed alternative viewpoint, and is successfully integrated into the story. This is not always true of the backpacking student Richard who looks after the climbers’ base camp. Which is not the fault of Patrick McNamee, whose excellent performance only serves to point out that the character is presented as one-dimensional and the butt of unnecessary humour.
Ultimately, however, the sheer visceral impact is always going to win through, and any glitches in the storytelling are hard to notice in a production of considerable emotional power.
Running time 2 hours 25 minutes including one interval
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, EH3 9AX
Thursday 24 January – Saturday 16 February 2019
Tues – Sat at 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed and Sat at 2.00 pm
Information and tickets: Book here.