March 26 2017
Dubbed the “poet laureate of the chemical generation”, Irvine Welsh came to prominence with Trainspotting in 1993. The novel captured the nihilistic hedonism of the zeitgeist – the ’90s were also a high-water mark for Britain’s “in yer face” theatre and Australia’s “grunge lit” – and thanks partly to Danny Boyle’s popular film adaptation, Welsh’s gritty, dialect-rich dive into Edinburgh’s junkie underworld became a global phenomenon.
Embracing all that’s vital and confronting in the novel, this production from the UK brings Welsh’s ultra-black tragicomedy to life with an almost Dionysian sense of frenzy. (Dionysus, it’s worth remembering, was the god of theatre as well as liquor.)
It’s one show I don’t feel like a wanker calling “immersive theatre”, because here the term is both figurative and literal. Flowing into, out of and through the spectators, if Trainspotting Live was any more live it might open its jaws and swallow the audience whole. And the injunction not to wear one’s best clothes is no joke: there’s a small chance you’ll find yourself baptised by the play’s epic squalor.
Entering the theatre is like stepping into a time-warp. We’re taken back to the height of ’90s rave culture. Lights flash and progressive trance blares as the cast dance the fun out of too much fun. One guy is even doing a high-octane version of the Melbourne shuffle.
The action crashes into a toxic morning after, with Mark Renton (Gavin Ross) waking in a strange bed, having soiled himself. Cue a panicked nude rant that slides into scenes of increasing desperation and debasement. Although the adaptation redacts some of the book, most of the shocks – from dead babies to Renton fishing through a toilet bowl to retrieve his opium suppositories – remain.
Ross’s performance is at once magnetic and repellent. It’s a brash, brutal and darkly funny portrayal seized by the demonic energy addiction can unleash. If you’re a fan of the movie but haven’t read the book, you’ll be especially taken by the raw poetry of Welsh’s Scottish dialect, which Ross handles superbly.
Horrors accumulate. The sociopathic Begbie (Chris Dennis) plays a reduced role, though there are still scarifying scenes of domestic violence. Sickboy (Michael Lockerbie) and the doomed Tommy (Greg Esplin) come to grief. True, their fates may have been more moving if they were less full throttle, but by directing these agonies and ecstasies through an “in yer face” tradition that’s almost non-existent in Australia, Adam Spreadbury-Maher achieves an intoxicating hold over the audience.
It’s a show that does nothing by halves. Not nudity. Not violence. Not coarse language. Not even flying excrement. Should you have the stomach for all that, Trainspotting Live will take you on a wild theatrical ride.