To Reach the Clouds

Adapted from Philippe Petit's book by Nick Drake
Nottingham Playhouse
(2006)

Publicity photo - Philipe Petit on the Twin Towers

Theatre often asks its audiences to suspend their view of reality and use their imagination when seeing a production. Giles Croft's world premiere at Nottingham Playhouse does the opposite by asking you to believe that what you're seeing actually took place.

To Reach The Clouds is the true story of the six-and-a-half-year adventure which culminated in 1974 when Philippe Petit walked on a high wire between the tops of the World Trade Centre's twin towers - 1,350 feet in the air.

Petit specialised in what you might call silly walks - not the Monty Python kind but those performed without official permission and with no safety net. He'd previously conquered Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. But the World Trade Centre was a different proposition entirely.

He had to choose a team he could trust who were to break into both towers of the World Trade Centre, haul their supremely heavy equipment up to the 110th floor, store it overnight and be ready at dawn for the actual walk. He also had to pick people who wouldn't tell anyone about the escapade.

Staging this feat is a phenomenal achievement. Croft and designer Mark Bailey have done a tremendous job.

Mind you, I'm sure there are few theatre companies that could actually put on To Reach The Clouds. That's because of the sheer physicality needed by the actor who plays Philippe Petit.

In that respect Dodger Phillips is head and shoulders above anyone else who might have been considered for the part. He juggles, does magic tricks, rides a unicycle, walks on a wire right across the stage and lives up to Petit's proclamation that "I'm not a daredevil, I'm a writer in the sky."

Phillips trained in circus skills and has been an acrobat as well as a trapeze artist in various European circuses. He's also an accomplished - although not a great - actor. You get to understand his frustration when the twin-towers walk is postponed because he's not meticulous enough in his planning; he merely wants to tackle the "impossible dream" without having to contemplate all the behind-the-scenes activity. But there's not enough made of Petit's relationship clashes with his girlfriend Annie and organisational expert Jean-Louis. However, that's more a fault of the script than Phillips' ability.

The problems with To Reach The Clouds, although they aren't major obstacles to the enjoyment of the piece, are that setting up the wire for Petit's walks takes up an inordinately long time; occasionally the script is very technical; and there is little suspense in the production. It reminded me of The Day of the Jackal, an excellent film but you know the outcome before you see it because President de Gaulle isn't assassinated. Here Petit has to succeed, otherwise he wouldn't have been alive to write his book.

There's a certain amount of tension when a guard almost discovers Petit while he's hiding before setting up the equipment. But there's no anxiety when he's making the historic walk and there's no intention of that. A huge mirror is raised into place so that you can see Petit with his balancing pole from above; it's treated almost as a celestial experience.

The production isn't totally about Petit's exploits. There are strong performances from Hywel Morgan as the painstakingly thorough Jean-Louis and Sally Evans as Annie whose value Petit never fully appreciates.

Matthew Cullum makes the most of his role as Donald the hippy, adding fun and frivolity and making you wonder why he was ever allowed on Petit's team.

To Reach The Clouds gets off the ground and reaches a certain level - but it doesn't quite hit the heights that would take it out of this world.

"To Reach The Clouds" runs until Saturday, July 8th

Reviewer: Steve Orme