“Don’t wear white,” Islington’s King’s Head Theatre warned me when I tweeted about In Your Face Theatre’s adaptation of Trainspotting a few hours before the show. “What can they possibly mean,” I pondered, it being some 15 years since I read the book or watched the film, memories of them hazy.
Arriving with just a few seconds to spare, my heart pounding, desperate to avoid a front-row seat, just in case, I nabbed the last space in the house. Smug in my back row bench as others were dragged onto stage-corners by the cast, heavy house music blared out, nightmarish strobe lights flashed, frenetic limbs and faces raved to the beat with glow-sticked arms and blissed-out expressions. From the get go, this was clearly not going to be a “night at the theatre”.
As Gavin Ross’ astonishingly memorable, hilarious, tragic, Mark Renton emerged, bare-arsed and full-frontal from a grubby sofa, both he and his cute pink duvet cover coated in several pints of terrifyingly realistic rich-brown human waste, it suddenly all came back to me.
Luckily the cover was thrown in another’s direction, the sodden sheets dumped elsewhere. And then he wiped himself off, in intimate detail, in the face of an older lady who looked suspiciously like a theatre critic.
Trainspotting is immersive theatre at its very, very – utterly disgusting – best.
At 23, Ross is typical of a cast born around the same time Irvine Welsh’s novel was published. The book, much of which is written in occasionally-impenetrable Scottish dialect, offers snapshots about the life of a crowd of young drug addicts in late ‘80s.
Whole paragraphs of our cast’s dialogue will be lost on you if you’re not used to the accent, and it matters not a jot: fast paced, heavily smattered with obscenities, dark, witty and poetic, if anything it carries you along, deeper into this alien world.
Crammed into just 70 minutes, an hour taking out the opening rave, this show grabs the key plot points, with a couple of characters lost or merged: Tommy’s quick slide into the deepest of addictions as his friend begins to emerge from his; the death of a baby who never stood a chance at the hands of his neglectful, wasted, young parents. In half the time it takes many plays, we become deeply engrossed in our characters’ lives.
While the Edinburgh Festival goes on around them, the addicts inhabit a world of pubs, dingy bedsits, abusive relationships and desperation. Pity the audience members sat on the floor next to The Worst Toilet in Scotland, as Renton dives in to recover his lost gear – filthy paper, shit, used condoms (and all hope) flung out behind him. We squealed, ducked, gagged a little.
It’s gratuitously shocking and utterly brilliant, a scene both nauseating and absolutely hysterical. You will never know rock bottom like Mark Renton knows rock bottom.
Delivering those most iconic of lines – choose life, choose a job, choose a f**king big television – you can’t help but want to give Renton a long hug. “We all live short, disappointing lives, and then we f**king die,” he tells himself, like the way he lives his is normal, okay, no different to ours with our washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers.
He’s a shell of a man, still trying to hold on to the idea that his life is any sort of life at all. This life is not a deliberate choice, even if he’s tried to convince himself it is.
Renton’s emergence from addiction appears too fast, too easy, in a show of this length but the way Ross portrays it: almost instantly seeming healthier, heavier, more alive, with just the most subtle changes in posture, is pure genius. Unconventional in appearance, brave, bold and with first class comic timing when he needs it, Ross is an actor to get genuinely excited about.
Chris Dennis does a fine turn taking over Robert Carlye’s vicious, psychotic Begbie. Temperamental, wild-eyed, you half expect the audience interaction to end in a violent scrap. Greg Esplin’s Tommy genuinely wants to get out of this non-life. The job interview scene with Ross is an amusing comic interlude to the darkness. So easily persuaded to mess up his job prospects, it’s unsurprising Tommy caves, in the most tragic of ways, to peer pressure when offered another form of escape.
The girls, Jessica Innes and Erin Marshall, inhabit several characters, from “lairy sexpot” Gail Houston to Renton’s mum, and occasionally blurred into one for me. The scene where a new mother, Alison, discovers her baby’s died without her noticing, while off her face, is heartbreaking. Screaming and crying on the floor, the only possible solution to her agony is to beg for more smack.
Trainspotting is shocking, squalid, snort-out-loud hilarious one second, as dark as it’s possible to go the next. Book a seat, or at least a spot slumped on the stage, if you want a relentlessly entertaining, sick, intense experience that leaves you feeling genuinely breathless upon exit. My only complaint is that it was way too short for a show this stunning.
Trainspotting is immersive theatre at its very, very – utterly disgusting – best. Shocking, squalid, snort-out-loud hilarious one second, as dark as it’s possible to go the next.