‘It’s at the audience’s throat, often literally, the moment they enter the performance space … ’
It is frightening to think that it’s over twenty years since Irvine Welsh’s classic novel TRAINSPOTTING was first adapted for the stage. I first saw Trainspotting in the late 1990s. For me, seeing the astonishing original touring production in a tiny, long since closed, Southampton venue, was a life changing experience. I didn’t know theatre could be produced with nothing but a few props, clever lighting, a small cast and a shed load of energy. Many of the qualities I see today in decent pub theatre productions week in, week out.
The shadow of that original production is the least of this latest revival’s problems. The all-conquering film version, and more recent so-so sequel, colours many people’s view of TRAINSPOTTING. But this production, branded TRAINSPOTTING LIVE, co-produced by the King’s Head Theatre and In Your Face Theatre, couldn’t give a damn about any of this and is all the better for it. It is at the audience’s throat, often literally, the moment they enter the performance space. If the recent film sequel often made the mistake of being too deferential to the source material, this talented young cast of seven are quite happy to tear it all to pieces.
There can be few venues better suited for the play than The Vaults in Waterloo. A passage has been specially opened for the production and it feels like it has sweat dripping off the walls in the opening sequence set in a club, and the production makes good use of the space throughout. The actors thrive in this intense setting. You couldn’t really ask for more from Frankie O’Connor as the lead character Renton; rarely off stage, often unclothed, he convinces as this complex character who can be smart, stupid, vulnerable and mercenary, yet ultimately compassionate. Finlay Bain is also superb as Tommy. His journey forms the emotional core of the play. The only character we see falling into addiction, opposed to being a substance user for some time, he is a victim of bad luck and is dealt a pretty harsh hand.
Henry Gibson’s excellent script for the original stage version is pared-down here. Whilst the cast has nearly doubled, many of the extended monologues are gone. This has mixed results. At times the production, directed by Adam Spreadbury-Maher with Greg Esplin, feels merely like a series of theatrical set pieces, and some of the emotional depth is lost with the fast changing scenes and constant breaking down of the fourth wall.
Yet it feels like missing the point to complain about this too much. And when the play makes its inevitable emotional descent as the characters’ lot worsens, the change in tone is well handled. What the production brings home is how a great deal of ‘immersive’ theatre is, by comparison, immersive-lite. There are often a number of immersive sequences but sooner or later these productions will snap into a more conventional form. Not so here. The impact on the audience is pretty staggering. It was one of the youngest audiences I’ve ever seen outside of theatre specifically aimed at young adults. Their reaction throughout and afterwards was particularly noteworthy. Some had never even seen the film. Many were blown away.
This version of Trainspotting provides another original take on Welsh’s classic novel and is well worth seeing. But you might want to wear some old clothes. And if you are of a nervous disposition, for goodness sake don’t sit in the front row…
based on the novel by Irvine Welsh and
adapted by Harry Gibson, directed by Adam Spreadbury-Maher with Greg Esplin, produced by King’s Head Theatre, In Your Face Theatre and Seabright Productions
The Vaults 27 March -3 June 2018
Reviewer Andy Curtis is a playwright who regularly has plays performed in London fringe theatre.