• Catherine Flutsch

Touching the Void

★★★★


Review: Bristol Old Vic Presents Touching the Void - available for streaming on demand until 8 June. Book here.


[Disclosure: The Bristol Old Vic provided me with a ticket for the purposes of this review.]

Touching the Void is an extraordinary story of dogged persistence in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It’s a famous story and has been adapted from best-selling book, to award winning documentary and to stage play. The book was written by Joe Simpson about his and Simon Yates’ trip to climb the west face of the mountain, Siula Grande, in the Peruvian Andes. What happened on that trip is an extraordinary story of survival against impossible odds.

This is the show that the Bristol Old Vic has decided to open with – in its first in public, live theatre since it closed its doors in 2020. For those who are nervous about returning to the theatre in real life or who can’t get to Bristol – there is a simultaneous live stream. The season has now been extended to include watching the show on demand. I watched the show via live stream.

It’s a great choice of production to come back with – having been a crowd pleaser at its premiere in 2018. The Bristol Old Vic has done a fantastic job to go from theatre company to sophisticated live broadcaster – the live streaming was high quality, smooth and full of close-ups and different angles to create an immersive experience not available to those watching in real life.

Adapting a real-life story of survival into a theatre play is rife with challenges, and for the most part, the adaptation succeeds. I know the story well – so I did wonder how the stage version would convey the remote, high altitude jeopardy that is at the heart of the story. I wondered how audiences will truly believe, in the cosy confines of a theatre or a lounge room. The press photos looked unconvincing to me, so I approached the show with skepticism.

I was surprised to discover that it is those very scenes that I approached with skepticism that are the best and most effective of the whole show. The set – which looks a little bit haphazard in the press photos – looks absolutely incredible in the performance. The lighting, sound and the set come together to recreate high altitude jeopardy in a way that is utterly convincing.

By contrast, I found the scenes off the mountain – those scenes that are usually the bread and butter of the theatre world to be a little bit slow. For the most part, these are the scenes that set up the story – and as I already knew the story so well – those dragged. For someone coming fresh to the story, then I suspect that this level of detail is vital to set the scene for the action on the mountain.

The show has four actors – all who play real life people, who are still alive. There was one stand out performance – Josh Williams, who plays Joe Simpson. Josh gives one of the most incredible performances I’ve ever seen on stage. He is utterly believable as a severely injured Joe. Not all actors are capable of giving this type of performance, so if you love the theatre, it’s worth watching the show just for Josh' performance alone. The other actors give competent performances, but their parts are just not as juicy – so their acting chops aren’t being stretched.

[Skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers] When the story was first published, Simon Yates’ came in for criticism for his decision to cut the rope on which Joe was dangling to save his own life. It’s been many years since the story was published, and Simon’s actions have since been fully justified and publicly supported by many people, including by Joe Simpson himself. In the show, watching Simon weakened from dehydration, hunger and frost bite, alone on the mountain in deteriorating weather, in the dark, slowly losing his seat and his grip on the rope, taut with an out of sight dead weight – was enough to make the point. I felt the scenes where Joe’s sister replaced Simon to experience Simon’s point of view felt unnecessary, contrived and a bit laboured.

Another criticism I have is the ending. For me, it was just too abrupt. One second, a severely injured Joe is saved – we barely have time to take a breath - and we’re clapping the actors’ curtain call. I just needed a moment to process what had happened before I was ready to see Josh Williams leap up, full of life and energy, to take a bow.

Most people will enjoy Touching the Void – it is a good show, with some outstanding moments.

Square Stage