Theatre review: Touching the Void, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Josh Williams as Joe Simpson in Touching the Void PIC: Geraint Lewis
Josh Williams as Joe Simpson in Touching the Void PIC: Geraint Lewis
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First published in 1988, Joe Simpson’s great climbing memoir Touching The Void tells how, three years earlier, he and Simon Yates set off to climb the sheer west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, only to run into severe difficulties on their descent, when Simpson broke a leg in several places. Yates lowered him inch by inch down the mountain, only to see him vanish into a deep glacier crevasse; and in one of the most famous incidents in climbing history, eventually cut the rope on which he was holding Simpson’s swinging body, and returned to base camp, assuming his partner was dead.

Touching the Void, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh ****

Yet Simpson was alive, and somehow dragged himself back to safety; and David Greig’s stage adaptation of the story - now at the Lyceum after an acclaimed first run with co-producers Bristol Old Vic - plunges straight into that strange space between inevitable death and impossible survival, opening the show with Simpson’s near-death dream of his own funeral at the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe. Centre stage is Simpson’s sister Sarah, a no-holds-barred 1980s rocker played with electrifying power by Fiona Hampton; and In the dream narrative, she battles to understand his life and death, while also, elsewhere in Simpson’s mind, cajoling, driving and sometimes torturing her brother through his agonising journey back to base camp.

In Tom Morris’s utterly gripping production, all this is told in a deliberately simple, ingenious style, using the basic furniture of the Clachaig Inn to conjure up ice cliffs, glaciers and exhausting boulder moraines. There are perhaps some moments, particularly towards the end, when Greig’s various meta-narratives - not only the recurring funeral conversations, but also the jokey one about expedition helper Richard, played by Patrick McNamee - need to step back a little more, and let the action speak for itself.

Yet with Ti Green’s simple, jagged climbing-frame set brilliantly embodying the mountain and its dangers, and Edward Hayter and Josh Williams delivering a pair of fiercely committed, athletic and heart-rending performances as Yates and Simpson, the show emerges as a tense and thrilling theatrical experience, that captures both the absolute terror of Simpson’s brush with death, and the very human absurdity of the hallucinations that accompanied it. And throughout, the Clachaig juke box, orchestrated by composer Jon Nicholls, churns out new songs and 1980s classics perfectly matched to Simpson’s story; from Kraftwerk to the lift-brace-hop rhythm that Simpson invented for himself, on a journey home so incredible that it seems right, in this show, to offer us a glimpse of that parallel universe where Joe Simpson didn’t make it, after all. Joyce McMillan

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 16 February