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Review | ‘Touching the Void’ is physical theatre at its most nerve-wracking

Order an interval drink - you’ll need one!

By Steve Brown

Words by Simon Button

The cast of Touching The Void aren’t just actors, they’re athletes.

Climbing furniture and a huge, jagged frame rigged to represent treacherous cliff faces, they make this true story into physical theatre at its most nerve-wracking.

You go into the theatre wondering how this stage adaptation of Joe Simpson’s book about his attempt to scale the Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes could possibly work, especially after Kevin McDonald’s vivid 2003 documentary.

But narration fills in the scenery that McDonald was able to capture on screen and Chris Davey’s lighting design and Jon Nicholls’ soundscapes create a tense, chilly atmosphere as Joe (a truly committed Josh Williams) and his climbing partner Simon (agile Angus Yellowlees) risks their lives reaching the summit.

Order an interval drink because you’ll need one after the last 15 minutes of the first act, when Joe falls and shatters his leg and Simon has to decide whether or not to sever the rope and save his own life.

Act two takes up the story as, summoning up superhuman courage, Joe fights for survival against seemingly impossible odds – guided by the hallucinatory ghost of his sister Sarah (a very feisty Fiona Hampton).

Under Tom Morris’s taut direction, the potentially corny inclusion of Sarah as a you-can-do-it sidekick is actually very affecting – and it solves the problem of what would otherwise just be 60 minutes of a guy crawling across the stage.

Some of it is a bit jarring, like the quick bursts of slo-mo flashback that keep interrupting the opening scene and some folksy guitar-strumming in the second act.

No spoilers but people who already know the story might also be baffled by that first scene, but it does mean those who don’t know the outcome will leave the theatre deeply moved.

And, in my case, vowing to never, ever take up mountain climbing!

Rating: 4*

Touching The Void is at the Duke Of York’s Theatre, London, until February 29th. For great deals on tickets and shows click here.

Image by Michael Wharley