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Touching the Void – Royal & Derngate, Northampton

Writer: David Greig, from the book by Joe Simpson

Director: Tom Morris

Reviewer: James Garrington

What do you do when you’re faced with a decision between life and death? Would you condemn your friend to almost certain death, or hold on to the limit of your endurance even though that would probably result in you both dying?

Touching the Void marks the 30thanniversary of the publication of Joe Simpson’s book, which tells the story of how he and his friend Simon Yates were faced with exactly that decision. Simpson and Yates are attempting a new route to climb the treacherous Siula Grande, when Simpson has an accident on the descent leaving him with a shattered leg, dangling on the end of a rope over a deep crevasse. Yates doesn’t have the strength to pull him back up, so must decide between letting him fall or holding on until his own strength runs out.

Basing a play on a best-selling book which has also been turned into an award-winning documentary makes it very difficult to maintain dramatic tension, you’d think – yet the first act of Touching the Void does exactly that, and does it extremely well. The device they use is to have Joe’s sister Sarah asking Simon and base-camp manager Richard to tell her the story. There’s a nicely-judged performance here from Patrick McNamee as Richard, the man on the sidelines who seems determined to put himself into the centre of the story, alongside a wonderful portrayal of Sarah by Fiona Hampton which plays a great part in building the tension as a series of flashbacks are used to place first the climbers and then her on the mountain (a delight of a set designed by Ti Green).

Together they create some of the best storytelling you could hope to find on a stage, building up to the point where Simon has to make the fateful decision. Edward Hayter’s Simon is a calm, matter-of-fact character with the sort of understatement that you might expect to find in an experienced mountaineer. While this is quite possibly an accurate portrayal, the result is that some of his dialogue is flat and lacks emotion, even at the critical point where you don’t really get the sense of his agonising over the decision whether to cut the rope.

After the tension of the first act, the second almost feels a little low-key, focussing on Joe’s struggle for survival alone on the mountain with a tour-de-force performance from Williams who portrays the agony and physical effort involved beautifully. While a lot of the book talks about his loneliness, introducing his sister as a hallucination at this point risks damaging the integrity of the piece, but it works quite well. This is a different Sarah – here she provides the nagging voice of determination, cajoling and haranguing her brother to carry on through the pain. When the end comes it feels like an anticlimax, partly perhaps because the ending is no secret – a little dramatic licence and a stronger script at this point would probably create something more satisfying. Care should also be taken with sound levels, particularly in the climbing sequences where, no doubt attempting to portray the volume of the strong winds and storms, the background sound effects risk overwhelming the dialogue.

It’s a great story though, with some wonderful storytelling and good performances that overall create something well worth catching.

Runs Until 20 October 2018  | Image: Geraint Lewis

Writer: David Greig, from the book by Joe Simpson Director: Tom Morris Reviewer: James Garrington What do you do when you’re faced with a decision between life and death? Would you condemn your friend to almost certain death, or hold on to the limit of your endurance even though that would probably result in you both dying? Touching the Void marks the 30thanniversary of the publication of Joe Simpson’s book, which tells the story of how he and his friend Simon Yates were faced with exactly that decision. Simpson and Yates are attempting a new route to climb the treacherous…

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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