Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting has proved to be a surprisingly durable and versatile work. In its original incarnation as a novel it stands comparison with the neglected masterpiece Last Exit To Brooklyn, and it does so because Welsh matches Hubert Selby Jr’s ability to capture the vernacular of the community it speaks for so from amidst the grotesque surrealism of the imagary a harrowing realism emerges.
Its vitality has made it the perfect fodder for stage and screen. With Danny Boyle at the helm, the film exploded off the screen, underpinned by a pulsating soundtrack and electric performances that encapsulated hedonistic spirit of people that knew change was in the air after almost two decades of Conservative rule.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, and certainly appropriately, In Your Face’s production began life at the Edinburgh Festival and the constraints of performing there might explain the 65 minute running time, which is really only just enough time to do justice to the world Welsh created. However Harry Gibson has done an exemplary job in adapting Trainspotting.
Rather than force the whole plot into an hour, Gibson has tightly focused the work around Renton’s journey towards ditching the skag. Other characters interweave in this story and the main beneficiary is in lifting Tommy Laurence so he becomes a central character; in this world, where scales play such a critical role, there must always be balance and so with Renton’s emancipation must come Tommy’s enslavement.
Fans of the film may complain that Begbie is sidelined by these changes but in this immersive staging a little of Chris Dennis’ Begbie goes an awfully long way. It is hard to believe that anyone could get close to Robert Carlyle’s psychopathic creation but Dennis has an added advantage – audience members at which to channel his malice. Even understanding the rules and structure of theatre there were moments when Begbie broke the fourth wall and became a terrifyingly real manifestation in a manner Boyle’s film could never have achieved.
In Your Face have produced an immersive experience that puts to shame many theatre companies working in a similar field; they have not found it necessary to scope out abandoned factories, railway tunnels or old department stores to create their world, rather they have transformed the King’s Head into the down-at-heel world of early 90’s Leith and trusted in their ability to take the audience with them.
We know we are in a theatre and the set is just a representation of a location – we don’t need elaborate sensory experiences to make us believe we are somewhere else, that is what we use our imaginations for – but from the moment we enter to a glowstick-raving cast gurning maniacally to Born Slippy.Nuxx, Ebenezer Goode and Right on Time through to the heartbreaking candlelit ending we are completely immersed in the world they have created.
This is not interactive theatre; there is no guarantee that you will be brought into the action but you are very much in, and part of, their world. The ensemble cast move at ease through the audience to create the scenes; they collapse around you, hand you their dirty clothes (yes, the scene with Renton at Dinah’s house is recreated in all its glory), spray you with Buckfast or (if you were unfortunate to catch Begbie’s eye) eye-ball yer tae fuck and their wisnae anything yer could do about it unless yer fancy gittin doon tae some proper swedgin.
As the above sentence may (embarrassingly) suggest the lyricism of the Leith slang comes shining through in the production. There has always been a fixation on the swearing and general horrific nature of Welsh’s work, but there was always a genuine poeticism in the quieter moments. Welsh is capable of penning portraits – whether they are descriptions of heroin, of Mother Superior, or Renton’s mother lending him a helping hand – that paint a world as clearly as any Flemish master. The dialogue flows out of the actors’ mouths so fluently that, like Shakespeare, you don’t have to understand every word in order to know precisely what is going on. It is not the case of having to listen, it is about wanting to.
It is a play to be experienced rather than read about. The enjoyment comes from being taken into their world, and in Gavin Ross we are given an exceptionally talented guide. Anyone who has left a club at 08:00 in the morning with pupils like saucers will recognise Ross’s Renton, and anyone who hasn’t can easily imagine that Renton is firmly fixed in reality.
It is a magnificent performance that demands total emotional honesty. He is physically and mentally on display, and there is never a moment when the commitment wavers. It is as good a performance from an up and coming actor as I can remember and bears comparisons with the self-lacerating performance of Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag.
I thought it likely I would like Trainspotting before I went to see it. However I did not expect to be quite so impressed by the maturity of this young theatre company who demonstrate an ability to take theatre if not to new places then at least to remind us of the power that accompanied productions of the early 1990s .
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