Review: Touching The Void, Duke of York's Theatre

Touching The Void, based on the best selling book, is a real life epic that whisks us to the dizzying summit of the Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes following the perilous expedition of best friends Joe Simpson (Josh Williams) and Simon Yates (Angus Yellowlees). As the bold young climbers forge a new trail up the Western face of the mountain, both men discover the true enduring strength of the human spirit as they walk the razor-sharp edge between life and death.

There is always something bracing and seductive about the promise of a true story. Tom Morris’ production is a heartfelt, nail-biting, and almost acrobatic spectacle. In his legendary hands, the War Horse director treats us to a multi-media exploration into the pursuit of adventure, the quest for purpose and the bonds that tether us to earth when our hearts soar above the clouds. 

The set is truly remarkable as a few chairs, jukebox and large shifting scaffold structures transport us from a humble pub to the vast and brutal expanse of a mountainside. Williams and Yellowlees traverse the set, shouting above roaring winds and digging axes into the ice with such urgency that it is effortlessly authentic. Subtle light changes hypnotically usher us through night and day making the action feel simultaneously timeless and as brief as a single breath lost in space.  

The cast of 4 are a masterclass in tone and pacing. Action cuts between Richard (Patrick McNamee) and Joe’s Sister Sarah (Fiona Hampton) recounting the mens’ journey, and the two men battling to carve their own small notch into history. 

The camaraderie between Joe and Simon adds gut wrenching stakes to their journey. Every near-fatal stumble or missed step sends tremors of tension through the audience. When Simon is faced with the unthinkable choice of sacrificing Joe to save his own life we feel our own stomachs plummet as we watch the helpless Joe fall to his presumed death. 

McNamee perfectly underscores the tension with humour so as to prevent the piece from becoming too bleak. The naïve hippie, aspiring writer on his gap year seems so comically out of his depth in a narrative of this intensity, adding moments of relief. Yet, I am also struck by the beauty and sensitivity of the songs he sings on his guitar.

Williams is by far the standout performance of the piece. His emotional intensity and desperation to survive are brilliantly conveyed. Conjuring an illusion of his sister at his side to motivate him, he crawls for three painstaking days on a shattered leg out of the cavern where he was unwittingly left for dead. In him we see a man who looks death square in the eye and through sheer force of will, refuses to succumb. Through Joe we see a truly inspiring story about the limitless depths of human bravery; the despair and ecstasy of touching the void and living to tell the tale.

Touching The Void is playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 29 February. For more information and tickets, visit the Touching The Void website.