Paul T Davies reviews Touching The Void now playing at the Duke Of York's Theatre, London.
Touching The Void
Duke of York’s Theatre, London
14 November 2019
Transferring into the West End, this Bristol Old Vic production stages Joe Simpson’s remarkable survival after falling from the Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Alps into a crevice. He had suffered a broken leg before the fall, and his climbing partner, Simon, staggered into base camp days later, exhausted and frostbitten, with news that Joe was dead. He wasn’t, and the psychological and physical trauma the pair felt formed Simpson’s book, a subsequent film, and now David Greig’s remarkable and gripping adaptation.
Sometimes the stars in a production are not the actors. Here it is Ti Green’s outstanding set design, bringing to life the mountain itself, making it a character that changes as the play progresses, incorporating a pub environment, where a jukebox becomes an integral part of the story. Every area of the stage is used- to demonstrate climbing, actor Fiona Hampton scales the stage right boxes, reaching the height of the theatre, (although from my auditorium seat left, we couldn’t see her ascent). The actors abseil, climb, fall, and Chris Davey’s superb lighting design forms a partnership that leads you through the story with intense clarity. Add to that composer and sound designer Jon Nicholls atmospheric and pounding score, and the piece is ready to take us on Joe’s journey.
This would be nothing, however, without the terrific four actors recreating the story. The book is told by Simpson, and he writes about the voices in his head that got him out of the crevice. Here, Greig makes that his sister, Sarah, who goaded young Joe into daring exploits and was a somewhat competitive older sibling. It’s a genius move, and this relationship is the core of the play, the banter and love captured perfectly by Josh Williams as Joe and Fiona Hampton as Sarah, both as feisty and sardonic as each other. As Simon, Angus Yellowlees is strong, expert, and then conveys pure despair at having to cut the rope and let his friend fall- the explanation of why he had to do it is the powerful climax of Act One. The cast is completed by Patrick McNamee as the nerdy Richard, who stayed at base camp, and provides narration and explanation as well as some much needed light moments.
If the play is a little slow to get going, initially taking place at Joe’s imaginary wake, Tom Morris’s excellent direction lets the exposition develop, setting things up so well for the arrival of the mountain. Having not read the book or seen the film, the words, “How the Hell did he get out”, kept pounding in my brain. How he does provides the second half of genuine edge of the seat theatre, with Williams and Hampton making you urge Joe to take every step. At one point I was aware of just how many audience members were leaning forward in their seats, completely gripped. It’s an adrenaline-fuelled, gripping evening at the theatre, and that set will stay in your mind for a long time. So will the use of Boney M- trust me, it's well worth finding out!