Kevin MacDonald

Touching the Void

26/01/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

I have to confess that my first thought when I see this production advertised is, ‘How the hell are they ever going to put this on a stage?’

Anyone who has read Joe Simpson’s true account of his disastrous misadventure in the Peruvian Andes in 1985 – or seen Kevin MacDonald’s subsequent documentary – will know that Touching the Void is an epic story of adventure and survival against all the odds, with most of the action taking place on the remote peaks of an icebound mountain. The Lyceum has a reputation for inventive staging, but it’s clear from the get-go that this production will necessitate designer Ti Green and his crew to pull out all the stops.

David Greig’s canny adaptation begins – rather disturbingly for those who know the story – in a climber’s pub in Glencoe, where Joe Simpson’s sister, Sarah (Fiona Hampton), welcomes us all to her brother’s wake. She tells us she’s forgotten to make sandwiches and then cranks up the jukebox with a few eighties classics. Joe’s climbing partner, Simon (Edward Hayter), turns up, accompanied by the nerdy Richard (Patrick McNamee), the young man who served as assistant on Simon and Joe’s recent climb, and Sarah asks them for more information about what happened up on the mountain.

Simon begins by trying to explain the allure of mountain climbing by literally showing Sarah the ropes. They start small, by ascending an upended dining table, but pretty soon they are using ropes and winches to scramble up the sides of the proscenium arch. Sarah is astonished to find that she is enjoying the experience, but she still wants to know more…

And then Joe (Josh Williams) appears and, at the rear of the stage, a representation of the Peruvian mountain rears slowly into position so that Joe and Simon can re-enact their climb.

This is the point where the audience’s disbelief must be fully suspended if this is going to work – and I’m happy to report that it doeswork, quite brilliantly. Clambering about on a haphazard construction of metal and paper, the actors somehow manage to generate extraordinary levels of suspense, leading inexorably to the point where disaster occurs. It’s a heart-stopping moment, simply but convincingly staged.

If the play’s second half doesn’t quite fulfil the promise of the first, it is perhaps because it chooses to focus on the concept of solitude as a badly injured Joe is faced with the Herculean task of dragging himself back to base camp, accompanied only by a hallucinated version of Sarah, whose method of encouragement consists mostly of repeatedly whacking her brother’s broken leg with an ice axe. The characters of Simon and Richard are largely forgotten here and it might have helped to involve them a little more in the proceedings. Simon in particular seems poorly served. We never really share the feelings of guilt he must have had over what happened – indeed, we find out very little about what lurks behind his impassive expression.

That said, the story’s powerful conclusion, where we finally see the true grandeur of the mountain itself is undeniably exhilarating, and the four actors fully deserve their enthusiastic applause.

We’re all familiar with that famous quote about climbing a mountain ‘because it’s there.’ This production seems to live by a similar ethos, fearlessly tackling a subject that few theatre-makers would dare to attempt and, for the most part, taking it to dizzy heights.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Whitney

10/07/18

Whitney Houston was the proverbial golden girl. Born into a talented family – her Mother was Cissy Houston, her cousin Dionne Warwick – she was blessed with an almost incandescent beauty and a singing voice that was quite simply thrilling to listen to. Of course she was always going to be a star and it’s little wonder that her version of  Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You is still the biggest selling record by a female artist ever. But her career also followed a depressingly predictable trajectory. A meteoric rise to stardom, following by a rapid descent into drug-fuelled oblivion. Why is it that so many successful pop stars follow that route? Why does having so much inevitably lead them to the feeling that they actually have nothing worth living for?

Of course, the popular opinion is that Whitney was a saint, led astray by her marriage to bad boy singing car crash, Bobby Brown – but what quickly becomes clear from Kevin MacDonald’s astute documentary, Whitney, is that the seeds of her self-destruction were sewn years before her success as a pop star. It was there in the family that closed ranks around her and effectively became her employees, in the pushy mother who groomed her for success and the interfering father who stole vast sums of money from her and eventually ended up suing her to the tune of a hundred million dollars. It was in the two brothers who first introduced her to drugs when she was still just a teenager and it was in the ever-hungry public who demanded everything from her when she was successful and yet voyeuristically relished her dramatic fall from grace. And of course, it was in the tabloids, as ever, waiting in the wings to feed on the misery…

Whitney isn’t an easy watch. At times, it’s downright heartbreaking. MacDonald has opened the film up to be more than just the standard pop star biography. He pulls in found elements that reflect the world over the turbulent years of her fluctuating fortunes, contrasting her sweet girl image with the ugly reality of war and race riots. Unlike Nick Broomfield, who also filmed a Whitney biopic this year, MacDonald has the full cooperation of the singer’s family and what they have to say about her life is sometimes frustrating and more often downright chilling. Towards the end of the film, a shocking accusation is made about a member of the family, one that is quickly backed up by others in the clan, and you begin to appreciate that this particular rabbit hole goes very deep indeed.

But Whitney’s talent shines through like a beacon, her superb voice even managing to make her rendition of The Star Spangled Banner (at the1991 Super Bowl game) a profoundly moving event. It’s as though her voice encapsulates all the pain she’s been going through for years, making it part of the fabric of her talent. Whitney fans may find this gives them a little more than they actually want to know, but it’s a powerful and affecting film that tells some uncomfortable truths.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney