Touring – reviewed at Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton
Joe Simpson’s remarkable 1988 memoir about his death-defying tale of survival, against impossible odds, in the Peruvian Andes, has rightly become the stuff of legend. It has also spawned books, talking engagements, documentaries and an award-winning film etc.
What’s left? Moving the 20,000ft Siula Grande mount inside a theatre to replay the drama on stage. Natch. The concept seems as inconceivable as the source material. But David Greig’s riveting adaptation of Simpson’s Touching The Void has made the transition for an innovative co-production, led by Bristol Old Vic, which is now touring.
It’s a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat drama which is both nail-biting and exhilarating. I came out exhausted, feeling I’d made the ascent myself (as if). You don’t have to like climbing and mountains or own your own set of crampons, to appreciate this captivating tale. It has all the elements of a classic adventure yarn.
Audiences have to use their imaginations a lot but the combination of Ti Green’s design, Chris Davey’s lighting and, in particular, Jon Nicholls enthralling music and sound effects, pitch everyone onto the ice sheets and cliff faces of this colossal mountain. There are times when the wind is howling and tension is being ramped up by the ever more dramatic music, that it’s impossible to hear the dialogue even though they’re shouting at each other.
But that’s as it should be. Risking life and limb climbing to a treacherous mountain peak is no walk in the park. Josh Williams is astonishing as the beleaguered Joe. The first act sees him gung ho and jokey, brimming with laddish self-confidence, an adrenalin junkie who thrives on climbing.
The banter between Joe and his new climbing partner, Simon (Edward Hayter), leaves you in no doubt that mountaineers, besides being totally insane, are part of a brotherhood every bit as identifiable as surfer boys boozing in beach-side bars.
They have their own style in both clothes and speech, their own idiosyncratic style of underplaying the dangers they face and a seemingly breezy attitude to death.
Act Two concentrates on Joe’s efforts to stay alive after falling into an ice crevasse and it’s heart-stopping suspense.
Left for dead by Simon, who had no choice but to cut the rope joining them, Williams is mesmerising as the heroic and determined Joe.
We’re literally with him every agonising step of the way, willing him to survive. It’s a terrific performance.
Entombed, with a shattered his leg, and in excruciating pain, it is his hallucinatory conversations with his fiesty sister, Sarah, that gives him the will to go on.
Inch by inch we follow his epic crawl to safety, dragging himself, in agony, over ice, snow and rocks, thinking about Sarah and awful Boney M songs.
The play follows different timelines as we meet Simon, Joe, Sarah, and gap-year student Richard, before, during and after the accident.
Director Tom Morris has worked wonders in reinventing a theatre set. Tables and chairs become mountains, a simple glass is a toe-hole. The mountain itself is a sight to behold. The cast are really put through their paces in this very physical and gruelling thriller.
Richard (impressive newcomer Patrick McNamee) uses peanuts to demonstrate the scale of the ascent to Sarah.
She doesn’t understand why anyone would want to do anything so stupid as climb mountains. I have to agree with her.
Richard acts as the story’s narrator and he’s clearly captivated by the incredible story. He’ll probably be dining out on it for years to come.
His friends’ lives hang, literally, by a thread, in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, and he’s radiant, telling the story with a Boy’s Own enthusiasm and little concern. I tell you, these climbers are all crazy.
Hayter’s Simon has little to do but act as Williams’ sidekick. He looks every inch a handsome, free spirited mountaineer, with his blond curly hair and rugged jaw, but lets himself down at the climax with a surprisingly subdued response.
Fiona Hampton is bold, frank and fearless as Sarah whose constant questioning acts as exposition to aid Richard’s narration. It’s engrossing story-telling.
The only thing that let this superb production down was the decision to not only have an interval but to have one an excruciating 30 minutes long.
I can understand why they do it, for there are some seriously big pieces of set to change over, but a half-hour break – the longest I’ve ever known – destroys the tension and breaks the narrative.
I’d have cut the running time to 90 minutes, gone straight through without a break, and utilised the same set.
You’ve got audiences hanging on every word and action as Joe slides into the void..and you cut for an interval, instantly wiping out the build-up of suspense.
But what do I know?
Touching The Void runs on the Royal stage until Oct 20 before touring to Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh (Jan 24-Feb 16); Hong Kong Arts Festival (Feb 21 Feb-March 2); Perth Theatre (March 6-9); and Eden Court Theatre, Inverness (March 14-16).
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