Novel by Irvine Welsh, adaptation by Harry Gibson
King's Head Theatre and In Your Face Theatre (producer James Seabright)
Quays Theatre, at The Lowry
From 06 June 2017 to 10 June 2017
Review by Martin Thomasson
We all have cultural markers, buried in our memories, waiting to spring up and trigger our sense of time passing and ourselves having grown older without being aware of it. Perhaps discovering that Danny Boyle’s marvellous adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting was released in 1996 will trigger just such an awareness. Twenty-one years. No matter. In Harry Gibson’s stage adaptation, directed with almost relentless energy by Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the piece feels up-to-the-minute and urgent.
From the moment we are led into this immersive (note that word, ‘immersive’, with care) production, as into an underground club—lights flashing, music pounding (earplugs supplied free for those who want them), young people dancing with manic, pent-up intensity—the pace of this show barely lets up.
Expect to be hugged, pawed, leered at, propositioned, clambered over, sat on, lewdly gyrated against (being blokey won’t save you from this, by the way), have your drink requisitioned and then spat into the air, showering you and those nearby, or even have Begbie screaming and spitting threats two centimetres from the tip of your nose. Excellent stuff, believe me.
Welsh’s story of an Edinburgh underclass, soaked in drink and violence and being sucked into the merciless grip of drug addiction, is flung into our faces with humour, grim honesty and shocking brutality. The tale is episodic and sometimes you might just feel there is too much going on for you to take it all in—Tommy drooling over the girl to your right, Begbie facing down the man behind you, while Renton parades the centre, putting you in the picture and drip-feeding his nihilistic philosophy: “smack is the only honest drug”, because it reveals how desperately grey and worthless real life is. But the episodic format serves the tale—these lives are going nowhere—and as for the occasional sensory overload, well, the mayhem is the message.
Welsh’s novel was apparently cut from the Booker shortlist for "offending the sensibilities of two of the judges". There is plenty here to offend sensibilities and the audience loves it. Even the infamous "lavatory scene" is recreated and, while Renton can’t quite dive in there, what he retrieves from that bowl sets the audience squirming and squealing (mostly with delight). One young woman, fearing for her lovely chiffon blouse, retreats to another seat, as the thrashing, splashing and lobbing about sends a “used" condom flying over her head and into someone else’s lap (a mere prop, I’m certain, dear reader). Just so you’re warned, in addition to the language (Cs and Fs abound), expect full frontal (and rear) male nudity, nipples (both sexes), strobes (used to disturbing effect), and distressing scenes of domestic violence. None of this is gratuitous, in my view.
One problem for Gavin Ross (Renton) and Chris Dennis (Begbie) is how to make their own roles so closely associated with the actors who first portrayed them (Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlile respectively). They pull this off admirably, Ross especially so.
All to the good, his Renton is markedly less charming that McGregor’s, living from the first moment the insight he will later share that, while the “pish-head” wants all those around him to be having a good time, the smack-head cares only for his own needs; the hit is his only true friend. Trainspotting, Ross tells us in the programme notes, "had a huge impact on his life," and he brings every ounce of that to the stage. There’s a good deal of fun in the improvised moments, too. A Boris Johnson lookalike is ribbed, and “Moby” gets a good head-licking after being told, “I love your work!”
The stage version allows the audience to follow the complexity of Begbie’s character, too. We meet him as a scary, unintentionally funny and ridiculous bully, who later reveals himself a temperamental, amorally violent, self-justifying monster. And yet, at the close, it is Begbie who steps forward to comfort a grieving friend.
This is a really fine, young cast, who commit utterly to a show that zings with energy while provoking reflection on the waste of life and human potential it depicts.
If you’re a fan of the book and/or the film, why not treat yourself to a full set? You won’t regret it (just don’t wear your best chiffon blouse).