Review: Touching the Void, on stage in London’s West End

‘What next? A bloody musical?’
Joe Simpson

When a writer makes a comment like this about a stage-play version of his book, then it’s probably going to be a weird play. I have to confess, I raised my eyebrows too.

There aren’t many characters in Joe Simpson’s book Touching the Void, and the main one, Joe Simpson himself, spends most of the story entirely alone, contemplating existence as he crawls for three days along a glacier.

Loneliness and the act of dying alone is one the principal themes of the book. When a production company tried to make a film of it a few years ago, Simpson reacted with horror when one of the writers suggested connecting him and his climbing partner Simon Yates with a pair of radios in order to provide some dialogue. The film was eventually made as a documentary rather than a drama.

So how on earth were they going to make a stage version?

Touching the Void advertisement

Alongside Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, about the 1996 Everest disaster, Touching the Void is one of the two books about mountaineering that are often read by people who don’t generally read books about mountaineering.

If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s an autobiographical account of two climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who made the first ascent of the west face of Siula Grande, a remote peak in Cordillera Huayhuash area of the Peruvian Andes. They made a successful ascent, but got into a spot of difficulty on the way down when Joe broke his leg on the summit ridge.

The story became notorious for an incident involving Simon, the rope and a large knife, an incident which resulted in Joe being left for dead some way down a giant crevasse.

Except Joe wasn’t dead. He somehow managed to find his way out of the crevasse and crawl back to camp, wondering all the time if Simon would still be there when he got back.

The book has been adapted by Scottish playwright David Greig and is currently being staged at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London’s West End. It will be running until the end of February 2020.

The Duke of York probably isn’t the best association to have at this precise moment in time, but fortunately for the producers of Touching the Void, recent events don’t seem to be affecting ticket sales.

I haven’t been to the theatre for years and I had forgotten how expensive it is. The cheapest seats on this particular night were £35 and labelled on the website as ‘Restricted View’. A good rule of thumb is not to buy London theatre tickets online while sitting at your desk during your lunch hour. Unless you have tolerant colleagues who are able to continue working when someone shouts ‘fuck me’ loudly across an open-plan office.

After apologising to my colleagues and checking with Edita that she didn’t mind me forking out £70 to sit behind a pillar for two hours, I took a deep breath and inserted my credit card details.

In fact these seats turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The restricted view was because we were sitting in the front row of the upper balcony, dozens of metres above the stage, and had to lean forward to see what was going on at the front of the stage. This gave us a sense of what Joe must have felt like dangling from a rope dozens of metres above a gaping crevasse. The fear was palpable, especially when Edita propped her wine glass on the balcony railing.

Some of you may be thinking yeah, but you’re not really experiencing the same fear as Joe did, because you’re never going to die in a theatre. But just behind where I work in central London, the Piccadilly Theatre is currently surrounded by scaffolding after the roof collapsed, somewhat ironically, during a performance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Events like this don’t happen often to theatre goers in London, but I found that if I imagined they did, then I could smell the fear Joe and Simon inhaled while spread-eagled beneath the avalanche-laden slopes of Siula Grande’s west face. This feeling was enhanced when I glanced up and saw this.

A chandelier was suspended above the auditorium like a giant serac of death
A chandelier was suspended above the auditorium like a giant serac of death

That’s right, a giant chandelier that would be the first thing to say ‘hi’ if the ceiling collapsed. I removed Edita’s wine glass from the railing and took a swig.

We soon came to see why the Duke of York’s Theatre may have been chosen for this production. It wasn’t because no one else would use it after his interview on Newsnight, but because the theatre’s airy proportions are well suited for a production where height plays an important role.

It also became clear the moment the curtain was raised that this wasn’t so much a dramatisation of the book Touching the Void but a dramatisation of the event described in the book. The first person on stage was a female character who didn’t appear in the book – Joe’s sister Sarah. She was at the Clachaig Inn, Glencoe, a famous hiking and climbing pub in Scotland, awaiting the arrival of Simon and Richard, the backpacker who came to Siula Grande with Joe and Simon to look after their camp while they were on the mountain.

The airy interior of the Duke of York's Theatre lends itself to a play about height
The airy interior of the Duke of York’s Theatre lends itself to a play about height

The premise was that Joe has died and they have agreed to meet her to explain what happened and provide some closure. The character of Richard brought some comedy to the play. Where Simon was the sensitive one, Richard was clumsy and gaffe-prone.

SPOILER ALERT!

At this point, some of you will be thinking, ‘but Joe didn’t die. After all, he wrote a book about it.’

This was explained a short way in when Sarah asked them if they were sure that Joe wasn’t still alive. Joe’s crawl along the glacier was a race against time to reach camp while Simon and Richard were still there. Had they left a day earlier then Joe could easily have been left for dead and they would have been none the wiser. This race and the two different scenarios it posed was an interesting idea, but it wasn’t really explored any further.

I wasn’t convinced the opening scenes worked. There was a lot of swearing. I mentioned in a post earlier this year how I’d ended up reducing the number of ‘F’ words in my book to 20ish after feedback from beta readers. But ten minutes into Touching the Void, Sarah had used the ‘F’ word 73 times (or thereabouts) and the ‘C’ word once.

This latter word was used to tell Simon what she thought climbers were and I wondered what Joe Simpson would have made of it, or whether his real sister ever called him this. Edita laughed at the line, but I sensed some members of the audience gasping, and I wondered if this was going to be one of those shows that would have me cringeing throughout.

I was shaking my head even more when Sarah raised the age-old question of why climbers climb. This is such a tired cliché that seems to make an appearance in every documentary about climbing (why does anyone morris dance, watch cookery programmes on TV or play computer games? These are all things that bore the hell out of me but there’s an obvious answer why some people do them if not me: because we’re all different. You can quite happily go through life without needing to understand why some people like to prance around a maypole waving handkerchiefs).

But this was the moment when the play suddenly came alive. Simon answered it by asking Sarah to crawl across the table as though she were looking for handholds. Suddenly he upended the table and she grasped the edge to stop herself falling. Within minutes, he had produced a rope and harness and she had climbed up the wall of the stage to our level while he belayed her. At the top she whooped with joy.

The scene cut to an imaginary Grandes Jorasses in the French/Italian Alps. Joe appeared and both he and Simon showed Sarah how to ice climb. They did this horizontally on tables, swinging their ice axes in front of them, with the back of the stage becoming the ground beneath them. It reminded me a bit of the Monty Python sketch Climbing the North Face of the Uxbridge Road.

The scene cut to a bar in Peru, with Richard in a poncho. He met Joe and Simon discussing the logistics for their climb, and they invited him to come to base camp with them.

There was a discussion of alpinism, a faster and lighter style of climbing. It emerged that Joe idolised the Austrian climber Toni Kurz, who died of exhaustion dangling from a rope on the north face of the Eiger, metres from would-be rescuers (perhaps not the best person for a climber to idolise). Joe then described the story.

Josh Williams (Joe) and Angus Yellowlees (Simon) in Touching the Void London 2019 (Photo: Michael Wharley)
Josh Williams (Joe) and Angus Yellowlees (Simon) in Touching the Void London 2019 (Photo: Michael Wharley)

Then the scene moved to Siula Grande. A giant climbing frame was lowered onto the stage. The metal frame comprised an assortment of random triangles, some stretched with paper to simulate snow and ice. This was quite a clever prop. Every so often the actors punched a hole in the paper to simulate a crevasse or kicking steps in the ice.

Richard became the narrator. He put a peanut packet on the table to indicate his tent at base camp. Some wooden chairs were scattered across the stage to simulate moraine. It was an imaginative use of props.

The play now became action packed and physical. The actors who played Joe and Simon must have been partly chosen for their climbing ability. We had already seen that Simon knew how to belay. Now both of them climbed all over the climbing frame, often horizontally. It must be a dangerous role. They were several feet off the ground and appeared to be unroped though occasionally one of them clipped a carabiner to the frame to jump off and take a fall. If they’re doing this every night for three months I wondered if they ever have an accident.

They punched a hole in the paper, climbed through it and peered out to simulate a night spent in a snow hole. The next day they climbed to the top of the frame and reached the summit.

Joe’s fall and their subsequent retreat down the west face was done to dramatic effect as they climbed back down the frame and Richard and Sarah narrated the ascent in unison.

Then we reached the crux of the story: the moment when Joe was lowered over a cliff and dangled in space, and Simon had to cut the rope to save himself.

‘How can you do this?’ Sarah cried up to him.

‘Be me. Be me,’ he shouted back.

She climbed up and sat alongside him on the climbing frame as the deed was done, and she understood that he had no choice.

At this point the curtain was lowered and we headed into the interval buzzing with excitement. It had all been cleverly done with plenty of action, tension and drama.

However, the second half lost some of the magic as Joe’s lonely crawl along the glacier was played out. One of the principal themes of the book – loneliness – was completely lost. In order to provide some dialogue, Joe’s sister Sarah was with him every slither of the way. She became his conscience, willing him to keep going every time he considered curling up to die.

For me, this also went against the grain of the book. Joe’s incredible will to live is one of the elements that makes it such a great survival story. He kept going, constantly looking for a solution, when most ordinary people would have given up. He didn’t need his sister bellowing in his ear to spur him on.

The tension was also spoiled somewhat by moments of comedy. These included Richard playing John Martyn’s May You Never on his guitar at base camp, much to the annoyance of Simon. This was even funnier for me because it took place at the front of the stage, and because I wasn’t leaning forward at the time to look over the edge, I didn’t realise it was an actor performing rather than music coming over the sound system. Only when Simon said ‘can you stop please, Richard’ did I realise the pair of them were sitting at the front of the stage.

Then there was the moment when Joe couldn’t get Boney M’s Brown Girl in the Ring out of his head as he crawled along. This is such a stupidly annoying song that everybody in the audience started laughing.

There were some other interesting interpretations that differed from the book. For example, when Simon walked into camp and candidly explained to Richard what happened.

‘I killed him,’ he said.

‘You don’t cut the rope,’ Joe cried, looking up from the ground.

‘He had no choice,’ said Sarah.

Whether Simon should or shouldn’t have cut the rope is a controversial topic that has been discussed widely over the years. But in real life Joe has always defended Simon, thanking him for saving his life by lowering him most of the way down the mountain when he could have left him up there.

The play ended abruptly at the moment Joe reached base camp and Simon discovered him lying on the ground. There was no aftermath or tying up the anomaly of the play starting with Joe dead.

I was ready to leave the theatre by then in any case, so I wasn’t particularly bothered. But I had enjoyed the first half very much. This can’t be an easy story to turn into a stage play, and although it didn’t always hit the mark, they have done a good job.

If they made a musical about Touching the Void then I would definitely go to see it. If you live in London, you’re exceedingly rich and you’ve got nothing better to do, then I would definitely recommend going to see this play.

And there is still plenty more scope for the Touching the Void franchise, as this short exchange on Twitter reveals:

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