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Review: Touching The Void

Review: Touching The Void

Review: Touching The Void cover photo on Stagedoor
Bristol Old Vic’s Touching the Void has already proved itself a theatrical winner, transferring to the West End in 2019.

Now this clever staging of mountaineer Joe Simpson’s memoir about surviving a fall in the Andes after he had been left for dead is back, in hybrid form. It's available in person in Bristol, and in livestreamed digital form for a worldwide audience.

Angus Yellowlees (Simon), Patrick McNamee (Richard) and Fiona Hampton (Sarah). Photo by Michael Wharley.

It’s gripping stuff, neatly framed by David Greig as a wake in a Highlands pub for Simpson (Josh Williams) held by Simon (Angus Yellowlees), the climbing partner who cut the rope when he thought that Simpson was long dead, Richard (Patrick McNamee)—the geeky traveller and would be novelist who became the pair’s base camp manager---and Simpson’s sister, Sarah (Fiona Hampton) who can’t bring herself to believe her brother is dead. Rightly it turns out. The second half offers a visceral and physical representation of Simpson’s torturous journey back from the dead as he tries to reach safety with a broken leg, and a shattered ankle.

What I like about it is that it never plays to the heroics and it conveys the appeal of climbing without ever romancing it. Basically, climbers frequently end up dead. It is also genuinely good on the mechanics of climbing. At times it has a strange kind of poetry, although the show isn’t big on either character or emotion, which is a challenge that the actors negotiate well.

The digital version of the show doesn’t quite have the wonder of scale that Ti Green’s design delivers when watched in person. Still, this an evening full of tension, where the pub is transformed into the icy and treacherous mountain in a collective and sometimes thrilling act of the imagination. It trusts that the audience will make that leap in the same way climbing partners trust each other. There is a terrific moment when a fall is conveyed by the smashing of a chair.

Angus Yellowlees (Simon) and Josh Williams (Joe Simpson). Photo by Michael Wharley.

You might find it a wee bit surprising that Simpson’s sister is quite as clueless about mountaineering as she appears to be, but it allows the others to explain why mountaineers risk their lives in getting to the top and also why they so often make fatal errors and slip on the way down. At a time when we are all negotiating personal levels of risk and how far we are prepared to emerge into the world, Touching the Void points to the fact that living to the full involves risk, and that without risk we are never fully alive.

You can watch Touching The Void online until Sat 29 May. Tickets here.

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Written by

Lyn Gardner

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