Top of the World

Spike Theatre
Unity Theatre
24th-26th February 2010

Reviewed by Jeremy Hawthorn

Physical theatre meets historical drama and art can imitate l,ife for a change. Spike Theatre's first sideways look at history replays the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953. Jamie Wood plays Edmund Hillary, Eugene Salleh plays Tenzing Norgay and Chris Tomlinson plays expedition leader John Hunt and, well, everyone else. The cast are in the theatre bar beforehand and the first few minutes of the play involve recovering various props from members of the audience.

The fearful conditions of the Himalayas are reproduced on stage with a set of aluminium ladders. They make high peaks, large white sheets hang from massive bulldog clips and some of the climbing up, down and between ladders looks genuinely difficult. For variety, there are tiny model tents and Action Men on sticks.

Everything you remember about the story is there: the expedition’s last-minute change of leadership, the media fascination with 'who got to the top first', the British propaganda coup at the time of the Queen's coronation, the relative lack of communication between Hillary and Tenzing (neither spoke the other's language). The play is well-researched with an eye for detail. The two main characters also have personal moments. Hillary has a love life to sort out and recalls being treated as a failure at school, while Tenzing has flashbacks of family bereavement.

A comic but somehow realistic sketch comes right at the summit. Our two heroes are wearing gasmasks and can’t speak. Hillary poses for a picture but Tenzing doesn't know how to use the camera . Hillary takes camera and he takes ages getting Tenzing to pose properly (adjust arm, turn head, adjust other arm, turn head again etc etc). It’s standard pantomime, but it’s funnier at the top of Everest.

And afterwards? The plot disappears rather, mainly because later events have already been mentioned. The Top of the World song provides a cheerful and dare I say uplifting end.

This show played three nights at Unity and is presently on tour. Tenzing told me they'll be at the Lee Valley Theatre in Netherley soon. Check Spike's website (the date wasn’t yet there when I looked) and try to go.

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