8000m, Tramway, Glasgow

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The Independent Culture

"Will they; won't they?" is probably the first thing you'd think when faced with a team of climbers about to attempt one of the world's 14 peaks of more than 8,000m, or indeed any expedition where the aim is to get from A to B and back again without dying. It's the kind of detached gambling that makes more people spectators than participants. And so, when the playwright David Greig forestalls the gamble in the first moments by placing his lead climber at the summit of Lohtse, it's rather like a mental rap on the knuckles.

It's a device that suggests that we are about to have our preconceptions about climbing overturned and re-examined. Questions such as: what drives those climbers at base camp who never get anywhere near the summit, scanning the clouds with their binoculars for the Edmund Hillarys and the Chris Bonningtons?

But this new work does not quite fulfil that promise. Greig worked against the "urge to dramatise climbing", an interesting venture, but in consequence has stripped climbing of much of its drama. There are moments of extreme power in 8000m that alter our perspective, both literally and mentally.

At one moment a climber is asleep, the next he dreams he is on a rock face, and the audience is suddenly at the top of a cliff looking down on him, as the floor becomes the vertical and the wall the horizontal. Later, as the expedition reaches a short-stop town in the Khumbu valley of Nepal, the climbers celebrate in a tacky hotel disco.

As the reserved lead climber Erica goes outside to make a phone call home in which there is nothing and everything to say, the music becomes muffled, throwing the audience into her personal environment. A climber is stranded up the mountain, a lonely figure tight on a ledge, hazily viewed behind a cloth on to which is projected the mountainscape of Lohtse.

8000m needs more such moments that commit to individual experience and counter the frequent dead-end, contrived discussions peppered with pop facts from the climbing world; "With each movement you make your body is consuming itself"; "among climbers, it is understood that you cannot claim the ascent unless you return to base camp alive".

There are some fine performances in what is a difficult space to fill, notably Selina Boyack as Ice Climber Erica, Phil McKee as the small-time Biscuit company executive with big dreams, and Matthew Pidgeon as the Doctor rather predictably raising money for a drugs charity while chain-smoking joints.

But it is the Writer, looking artificially for the team's reactions to the mountain, discarding all the useful interpretive observations, who encapsulates this play. Her slide show presentation after the team have returned from Nepal, gives little insight into that world - merely a detached fact-filled commentary. It is not that the questions have not been answered on this vast ranging subject. It is that they have not clearly been asked.

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