Duke of York’s Theatre, London, until February 29.
On a local newspaper, I once reported on a Townswomen’s Guild’s attempt to re-enact the Battle of Britain. I sat for nearly an hour transfixed as about a dozen old girls, with papier-mâché wings attached to their shoulders, threw themselves into the ambitious project with manic intensity. I don’t know what they would have done to the enemy, but, by Jove, they put the fear of God into me.
I had a similar sense of suspended disbelief watching Tom Morris’s production of Touching the Void, based on Joe Simpson’s bestselling book about mountaineering derring-do. Theatre ultimately has to be about the art of the possible, and I am not sure if, from outset, this was ever any more of a viable proposition than what the Townswomen’s Guild had come up with.
Almost inevitably, the designer Ti Green’s attempt at recreating the west face of the 6,344-metre high Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes is a bit of a disappointment. It looks like something that was prepared earlier in the Blue Peter studios, with a lot of crinkly paper and sticky-back plastic.
Actors climb up the side of the stage, too, over the boxes and up to the gods and there’s inevitably a lot of improvisation: Silver trays stand in for glacial lakes, a pub toilet sign is a glacier, shaving-foam is sprayed on a chair to conjure up snow and ice.
By necessity, an awful lot of the acting has to be done in a prone position, or upside-down or in some way suspended in the air and I imagine the cast members must be keeping a lot of physios gainfully employed.
With so much effort being expended, I would like to be able to say that it somehow manages to scale the heights, but sadly, in dramatic terms, the gravitational push is against them.
The story starts off with Sarah (Fiona Hampton) speaking at the funeral of her brother Joe, who has been lost on Siula Grande. She begins to investigate what happened to him. Joe is played in flashback by Josh Williams and there’s a rather half-hearted attempt at communicating the life-or-death appeal of mountaineering with George Mallory’s answer to the question why he climbed Everest – “because it’s there” – being oft repeated.
A spot of music and doggerel is employed to try to give the punters a sense of what it feels like to be climbing a mountain – “hole, kick, kick, push, hit, hit, hole, push” – but, put it this way, it didn’t exactly make me feel vertiginous.
The actors – Patrick McNamee is also on hand as a poetic gap year hippy called Richard and Angus Yellowlees plays Joe’s conflicted climbing partner – do what they can to make their presence felt. But with so much going on, I didn’t feel any of them ultimately managed to get a grip. A play of this kind has to make us care whether characters live or die and in this vital respect it fails.