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Review: Touching the Void, at Duke of York’s Theatre

10 January, 2020 — By Paul Cowling

Angus Yellowlees in Touching the Void. Photo: Michael Wharley

DIRECTOR Tom Morris and playwright David Greig ensure Joe Simpson’s celebrated book stands triumphant at the summit of the London stage.

A mountaineering tale shouldn’t work on stage, but this one grips like an ice axe.

Their adaptation starts with a wake for Joe in a Cairngorms pub. There’s a toast with beer and tracks to a life well lived from a flashing jukebox. But, why is there a wake? Is Joe actually dead? Joe’s older sister, Sarah (Fiona Hampton), seems to think so.

Sarah confronts Joe’s climbing partner, Simon (Angus Yellowlees). Simon gets Sarah to see things through Joe’s eyes, and she goes climbing for the first time.

A nervous, shouty Sarah becomes euphoric, as she belays up the side of this Victorian theatre, over the clutter of bistro chairs and veneered table tops that jut out from designer Ti Green’s set.

These are the nursery slopes to impending peril, as Green conjures the west face of Peru’s Siula Grande, where Joe fell and shattered his right leg in 1985.

This Andean peak is an aluminium frame that rises and changes shape like a giant spaceship. Ripped paper sheets are soft ice, punctured by the climbers to make a snow hole.

Joe and Simon clamber in, and when lighting catches the paper, it really does look as though they have found sanctuary up a death mountain… until Joe falls.

Josh Williams is simply brilliant, his face visibly sweating as he drags himself away from death.

Icy sparks fly as his pick slowly hacks away; we feel every broken bone and tissue grind as he ends up on all fours in the stench of a base camp latrine.

Also worth a mention are Patrick McNamee, who plays Richard (the non-climber nerd who guards the tents and brews the tea), and Jon Nicholls’ electrically charged soundtrack.

This is one of the best plays around, even if there is more swearing than is needed and the second act meanders for the first 15 minutes as expletive-laden Sarah becomes the voice in the head to get Joe across those bistro chair boulders.

Highly recommended.

Until February 29
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