At the Herald Theatre until 4 June
The set is simple, one end of a large Otago University meeting room, with an old-fashioned slide projector facing a screen at the back. Sir John Hunt, consummately played by Stephen Lovatt, is already in position. Sir John is the sort of chap who arrives early and remembers to thank everyone on the list. He begins before the lights, getting attention in the most polite way possible and with his warm, very English vowels, calling on us to stand for the national anthem (the British one, of course).
Giggling slightly, as you do when suddenly formality and, worse still, performance is thrust upon you, we stand, and we sing. Someone adds the pom-pom-pom-pom bit; Sir John smiles and carries on. By the time we retake our seats we are all thoroughly enjoying the feeling that we have gone back in time before the eighties, seventies, sixties, to the last straggling end of the British Empire when doing something fine was what Boys’ Own heroes still aspired to do. Sir John begins.
On one level, the play is simply a lecture on how the British team managed to climb Everest, but it is told by two people with different views on to what is important. As the evening goes on, one starts to sense there is still a sense of unfinished business, something slightly uncomfortable between them which must be brought to a head. Along the way, thanks the men’s contrasting levels of courtesy and discretion, the other team members are brought to life through the narrative, the photographs on the slides, and George’s visceral feelings about some of them.
There are moments though when things jar a little. Edwin Wright doesn’t seem as comfortable in his skin, or the room, as Stephen Lovatt, despite the lecture taking place on home ground. There are also a few inconsistencies in their treatment of the audience, who are sometimes treated as if they are in the room, and at other times as if they are not there at all. If Lovatt starts by acknowledging and playing to the audience, and we are very happy playing members of the Climbing Club, then both actors should and do so throughout. At the end, they play the space as if they are the only two people left in the room. These are minor quibbles though. The play draws you in and holds your attention, the characterisation is excellent, both leads are engaging and energised and very watchable, and the narrative is satisfyingly constructed.
Not only entertaining and watchable, it sheds a light on that side of human nature that most people will recognise: the insecurity that makes one feel one may not be accepted into the club, and so will exclude oneself first. In its own good-humoured and gentlemanly way, this play says a great deal about faith, courage, both moral and physical, clear-sightedness, honour, generosity of spirit and good leadership. It makes you consider what you believe in, and what you can give, and what you would give up for the greater good. And with Sir John Hunt suggesting it, you’d probably give, or give up, quite a lot. On Victoria Street there is a photograph of a recruitment station in the First World War surrounded by men so happy they are going to do their bit, to do something fine. And in that moment, I completely understood.