Review: Touching the Void (The Lyceum)

February 1, 2019

Joe Simpson’s incredible survival from a mountaineering accident on Peruvian mountain Siula Grande has been turned into a best-selling book, a Bafta award-winning documentary film, and has now been adapted for the stage by David Greig. Bringing the mountain to the Lyceum is no small feat, and doubtless the biggest question resting on the production is how can theatre possibly convey that sense of terror and bravery in a theatre space?

 

Superbly is the answer. We see our mountaineers Joe (played by Josh Williams) and Simon (Edward Hayter) clambering over a skeletal structure dangling above the stage, covered with what appears to be white baking paper that they kick through to get a grip. It’s an awe-inspiring sight, which creates tension for the audience not only in the fiction realm of the story, but also the physical environment itself. When it wobbles precariously, you can’t help but hold your breath, and if the actors look knackered it’s probably because they are; there is a visible strain to the action that adds to the performances.

 

 

It’s not only the climbing itself that tells the story, but downstage Joe’s sister Sarah (Fiona Hampton) and Richard (Patrick McNamee), a hippy backpacker put in charge of looking after basecamp, discuss the logistics of their journey, translating the jargon for an ignorant audience whilst still being entertaining in their own right. Surprisingly, the show has an odd narrative structure. We start at Joe’s wake in a Scottish bar, when a bitter and mourning Sarah asks Simon whether he was absolutely sure her brother was dead. It’s a long intro, in which Sarah learns exactly what the thrill of climbing in such treacherous conditions is, but it justifies itself in how entertaining it is, building up to the thrill of the climb. The story is told in flashbacks, at least up until the second act, where the emphasis shifts to Joe himself fighting for life in an icy crevasse. What’s never explained is exactly why the story is structured that way. Joe survives, and we’re left wondering exactly what function that first scene served. Is it a dream? Is it an alternative ending to the story? The final scene is too abrupt to give any answers.

 

At times the pacing lags as well. Naturally, since it’s a tale of endurance, most of what really happened was just trying to keep going in spite of all the obstacles. The audience have to bear that in mind and respect it when we are presented with clear filler scenes like the psychedelic rave scene as Joe fights his way over miles of rocky territory. Even so, the ways Greig and director Tom Morris make the epic understandable is creative and engaging.

 

The performances are not to be overlooked though. Williams resists making himself a hero or a pity case, but his boyish glee at mountain climbing and his sardonic wit make you root for him every step of the way. Hampton is the other stand-out; she is spiky and defensive, and in the second half becomes an embodiment of Joe’s will to live. McNamee and Hayter do well in their respective roles as comic relief and stoic companion. “Touching the Void” may be flawed, but if you’re coming for the thrills, you won’t be disappointed. Three stars.

 

Whispers from the crowd:

“The most amazing play, and the most gripping thing I have ever seen, it was incredible!”

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