Surviving in the deep freeze

A new play dramatises the terrible choice between starvation and cannibalism

How hungry do you have to be to eat another human being? That is the subject matter of a new play based on the true story of the Donner Party, a group of American pioneers in the 1840s.

How hungry do you have to be to eat another human being? That is the subject matter of a new play based on the true story of the Donner Party, a group of American pioneers in the 1840s. Angels among the Trees dramatises how the explorers made an ill-fated trek across the country in search of a better life in California, but became trapped in snowstorms in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Of the 87 party members, only 42 survived.

The expedition followed a "short cut" described by the adventurer Landsford Hastings - who, it turned out, had never taken the route himself. Stranded in the snow, the group were forced into making what must be the hardest choice of all: should they starve, or should they eat their fellow traveller?

"I can't really think of anything harder to deal with," says Giles Croft, the artistic director of the Nottingham Playhouse and the director of this epic production. "We are investigating quite difficult areas," he says. "There is a certain number of dead and desecrated bodies around the stage as the play moves along. What we are trying to judge is how far to go and at the same time keep the audience's sympathies. What you don't want to do is make people too upset or disgusted by what they are watching. It is quite a hard balancing act."

Turning the Playhouse stage into the Sierra Nevada mountain range was another difficult trick. This is the second time the set and costume designer Jamie Vartan has come up with a vast set for this stage - the 2000 production of Because It's There was another epic show, also written by Jonathan Holloway and directed by Croft, about Irving and Mallory's mission to conquer Everest in 1924. It saw the actors climbing a transparent frame and abseiling from the auditorium balcony and lighting rig, and a mountain made out of Perspex.

Of the new show, Vartan says: "Their journey begins as they walk across the parched earth of Missouri - created by stained floorboards - as the group head west. It starts snowing as they reach the bottom of the Sierra Nevada range, and the actors drag white cloths under their feet while paper snow begins to fall."

A distant mountain peak is made of sculptured polystyrene, and a pine tree made from a telegraph pole sinks three metres in to the ground to give the illusion that the snow is 13ft deep. But the most dramatic effect is the blizzard. "We turn on the snow machine and wind machine, and as the actors walk huddled together the front of the stage opens up - with dramatic side lighting - to reveal the underworld of people where the snow has covered their cabins," Vartan says.

Croft adds: "One of the things that has always interested me is demonstrating that the theatre can take on large and ambitious stories in a very dramatic and surprising way. We don't do these things with lots of money, but people can be very inventive."

Nottingham Playhouse (0115-941 9419; www.nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk) Saturday to 19 June

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