'Trainspotting': Theater Review

Courtesy of In Your Face Theatre Company
Gavin Ross in 'Trainspotting'
The scuzzy Scottish tragicomedy remains a fecal attraction two decades later

Irvine Welsh's druggy low-life classic that spawned the Danny Boyle film returns to the London stage in this fast-moving, filth-heavy, full-frontal revival.

A cult novel that became a screen sensation, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting painted a grim but extremely vibrant picture of working-class Edinburgh at a time when heroin, AIDS and unemployment were sweeping through the Scottish capital’s poorer fringes. The book is now more than 20 years old and firmly established in the British pop-culture canon thanks largely to Danny Boyle’s hit 1996 movie adaptation, which helped propel Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Kelly MacDonald and Robert Carlyle to global fame.

Newly transferred to London following an acclaimed run at last summer’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Scottish theater troupe In Your Face’s immersive stage revival feels like a bid to rescue Welsh’s dirty-realist classic from its cinematic reputation by restoring some of its scuzzy low-life energy. The text is based on Harry Gibson’s 1994 stage adaptation, which predates Boyle’s film and is truer to the novel's gritty, scatological, tragicomic tone.

Led by gangly, shaven-headed Gavin Ross as antihero Renton, the junkies who inhabit this scummy run-down apartment set have heavy purple eye bags and filth-stained jeans, not catwalk-model cheekbones and designer T-shirts. The cast sweat and spit, drop their pants and flash their penises. They also move promenade-style among the crowd, jostling and displacing audience members. Most scenes are not just performed but also narrated by multiple observers. Thus the movie’s glamorized rock-video spectacle is supplanted by a verbose, intrusive, intimidating intimacy that more closely mirrors Welsh’s hectoring stream-of-conscious tone.

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In Your Face has trimmed Gibson’s text to a single high-energy hour, thus allowing the company to stage up to four performances a day during this short run. They have excised various subplots, most obviously the London drug deal that forms the climax of the movie. The essentially comic character Spud (Ewen Bremner in the movie) is also absent, though some of his lines have been transferred to Tommy, played by the play’s co-director Greg Esplin. The fearsome Begbie (Chris Dennis), immortalized by Carlyle onscreen, is less dominant but more unequivocally evil, a bullying sociopath who beats his pregnant girlfriend. Neil Pendleton and Erin Marshall both do decent work as Sickboy and Alison, respectively, though their characters are marginalized in this new edit.

The updated production does make some concessions to the film’s influence, opening in the thick of a booming dance-club rave and closing with Underworld’s euphoric techno anthem "Born Slippy," which featured prominently in Boyle’s movie. Otherwise the background music is mostly 1980s indie-rock, and too quiet to have any dramatic impact. An amplified blast of Pink Floyd’s "Comfortably Numb" during a somber overdose scene feels like a clumsy bid for emotional gravitas, incongruous and oddly anachronistic.

Welsh’s novel is a Dickensian sprawl featuring multiple characters and loosely linked plotlines. Boyle’s film streamlined the story into a more conventional cinematic narrative. This filleted stage version is leaner still, but feels a little rushed and disjointed. The accents are authentically broad, the dialogue dense with weapons-grade profanity and poetic Scots colloquialisms like swedge, gadge, feart and more. This commendably uncompromising approach could prove a linguistic obstacle even to English audiences, never mind international tourists.

But these are minor wrinkles in an otherwise impressively visceral, adrenaline-fueled production. In Your Face’s remix of Trainspotting is not so much an inspired reinvention as a faithful cover version that incorporates elements of all previous treatments, from page to stage to screen. It moves too fast ever to become boring, leaving the audience high on a heady blend of exhilaration and disgust.

Venue: King’s Head Theatre, London (runs through April 11)

Cast: Greg Esplin, Gavin Ross, Rachael Anderson, Neil Pendleton, Chris Dennis, Erin Marshall, Calum Douglas Barbour, Calum Verrecchia, Jessica Innes     

Playwright: Harry Gibson, based on the novel by Irvine Welsh

Directors: Greg Esplin, Adam Spreadbury-Maher

Lighting designer: Tom Kitney           

Sound designer: Hannah Allan

Producer: Louisa Davis

Presented by In Your Face Theatre Company, King’s Head Theatre

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