Touching the Void by David Greig. The Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2 to 29 February 2020. 4****. William Russell

Mon-Sat 7.30pm.
Runs 2hr 30 mins One interval.
TICKETS: 0844 871 7627

Having started off at the Bristol Old Vic followed by an extensive tour David Greig’s play has now come to the West End for a season. It is a somewhat gruelling experience, partly because the production is really not suited for the Duke of Yorks, which has virtually no rake in the stalls and quite a lot of the action depends on somebody crawling painfully across the stage, which is hard to see through the forest of heads in front. That is not say it is badly done. There is an inventive set which manages to create the precipitous walls of the Peruvian mountain Siula Grande where it all took place in 1985. It is only at the very end that we get to see the real thing and breathtaking it really is.
The story is not unfamiliar as Joe Simpson wrote a book about what happened to him, which has been widely read, and Kevin Macdonald made a documentary about what happened, so it is to the credit of director Tom Morris that he has managed to inject a real feeling of tension as Joe, who has been badly injured on the mountain, ending up at the bottom of a crevasse, struggles to get back down. His companion, Simon Yates, faced with Joe having fallen off the mountain and being at the end of a rope, has had to cut him loose. There is no way he can get the injured man back up beside him. The moral dilemma is pretty clear. And the answer to it is also clear enough.
That it manages to be a gripping evening is to everyone’s credit, not least to the use Greig has made of the material, and the cast do some amazing things simulating climbing on the striking set by Ti Green or scaling the walls of the theatre with the help of ropes and tables and chairs to keep us awake. But it is a bit broken backed as drama all the same. Act One is far better than Act Two as we attend Joe’s wake in a climber’s hostel in Scotland hosted by his sister Sarah and learn how, with a young guitar playing gap year hippie, they have collected to look after base camp Joe and Simon embark on their climb up Siula Grande. Sarah plays devil’s advocate, questioning the insanity of it all, just why men climb mountains and rejecting the standard excuse about because they are there. She is tart, not all that enamoured of her brother, and the clash between reality and her attitude to the goings on – they show her how to climb up the side of the theatre to the top box using a table, a couple of chairs and a rope which is spectacular to watch – is hugely entertaining. In Act Two, however, we are with Joe trapped in his crevasse, fighting to live and Sarah only appears as a mirage urging him not to give way. It took three days for him to crawl out of the crevasse and back down the mountain over rocks and snow and it begins to feel a bit like that. Nothing happens along the way other than the imaginary Sarah bashing him with an ice pick every time his will to keep going falters.
One has to admire the playing – Fiona Hampton makes Sarah, a tough talking, no nonsense woman who does not understand her brother’s obsession with climbing, very attractive; Josh Williams as Joe and Angus Yellowlees as Simon manage to convey something of whatever it is that makes men climb mountains; and Patrick McNamee is a charming gap year boy who thinks he might write a book about his adventures, even more so after things go wrong, while singing plaintive, if inaudible songs, accompanying himself on a guitar. It has been highly praised on its way into town, but possibly over praised. The evening does eventually drag, and one longs for the descent down the mountain to end long before it does. Nor does anybody ever really explain why men like Joe and Simon do it – and they don’t themselves seem to know. Perhaps it would work better in a venue better suited to the demands of the play, but it is where it is. Best viewed from above.
Sarah: Fiona Hampton.
Richard: Patrick McNamee.
Joe: Josh Williams.
Simon: Angus Yellowlees.

Director: Tom Morris.
Set & Costume Designer: Ti Green.
Lighting Designer: Chris Davey.
Composer & Sound Designer: Jon Nichols.
Movement Director: Sasha Milavic Davies.
Production Photographs: Michael Wharley.

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