Nov 28th, 2019
The unbelievable true story of climber Joe Simpson and Simon Yates' 1985 expedition up the previously unconquered West face of Peru's Siula Grande mountain has already entered public consciousness thanks to Simpson's gripping memoir and the award-winning docudrama of the same name - can theatre replicate the grueling twists and turns that awaited these two young men as they set off on what is arguably one of the most incredible stories of survival of all time?
The answer is yes. David Grieg's stunning, epic and often hilarious adaptation does that and more. Now showing at the Duke of York's Theatre following a successful run at the Bristol Old Vic, this stunning four-person production (plus understudies/stagehands, decked out in anoraks and stage blacks) is certainly one of the year's most transfixing shows.
Differing from Simpson's memoir, Greig uses the character of Simpson's sister Sarah (the exceedingly likable Fiona Hampton) to serve as our introduction to the world of climbers. Though from the looks of many of my fellow theatre-goers, I'm sure they didn't need a primer in what makes people take on seemingly impossible mountains ("Because they're there" quips Ricard, Joe and Simon's Hippie base-camp manager and our onstage climbing Wikipedia).
However the execution is incredible - when a grief-ridden Sarah asks the survivor Simon (dashing newcomer Angus Yellowlees with a classic 80s dye job) just what it is about climbing, the theatre is transformed into a scalable track, offering Sarah the chance to climb to the very top box to experience the thrill. It's mesmerizing to watch. From then on, Touching The Void delivers a mammoth vision from simplistic means. My favourite scene: when Richard (an adorable Patric McNamee) explains the scale of the mountain in a pub setting, using peanuts, pint glasses, chairs and tables and a pub sign - a testament to the design of Ti Green.
When we finally see the boys on the mountain, here being a tremendous fiberglass frame bedecked with 'ice', all of your senses zero in on their perilous adventure, every triumph, every slip, every fall is felt in your belly, your mouth wide open in awe at the gut-wrenching tension. After summiting, tragedy strikes and Joe is cut loose from Simon, falling over 1000 feet into an ice cave. Faced with a nightmarish journey back to base camp, Josh Williams' Joe is wonderful to watch as he traverses the obstacles, both real and in his head. Knowing it's already a tale of survival makes no difference, Williams imbues each exhausting step with the pain, heart, and wit of Simpson's book. I don't think I even moved for the last 20 minutes of the show.
Watching it all play out is the most heart-stopping and adrenaline-fuelled time I've had in the theatre all year - and this is coming from someone who feels dizzy in the dress circle.
View our show pages for more information about Touching The Void, Duke of Yorks Theatre.
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