Fans of Irvine Welsh's caustic novel will appreciate this authentically messy night with the Renton, Begbie and the lads
Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting was published in 1993 but is actually set in the late ’80s. It’s a peculiar detail, because the subsequent hit film seemed to define the ’90s, with its driving Britpop soundtrack and grown-up, full frontal depiction of a drug scene that was already starting to fray at the edges. It’s hard to imagine, but it was a time when heroin was cool, and insouciant nihilism ruled the streets of Edinburgh.
Adapted for the stage by Harry Gibson soon after the novel was released, the play certainly stays true to Welsh’s impenetrable phonetic prose; the Scottish accents are so thick you’ll be lucky to catch half the dialogue. This isn’t as problematic as it might seem – you don’t need to understand someone’s words to know they want to smash you in the face with a billiard cue – but it does tend to flatten some characters into merely gestural figures. Chris Dennis’s Begbie, in particular, comes across as more of a rabid dog than a brooding psychopath, barking guttural but indecipherable venom at anyone in sight. It’s effective, up to a point, but it’s played decidedly in a single key.
The novel was really a series of vignettes, which works well for Gibson’s purpose here. The play isn’t so much a narrative as a layering of the visceral horrors of addiction on top of one another until the structural integrity gives way. Mark Denton (Gavin Ross) and his friends Sick Boy (Michael Lockerbie), Tommy (Greg Esplin) and the aforementioned Begbie hang around in pubs, take drugs in clubs, and drink piss and generally shout at each other in less than salubrious places of residence.
Not all of them take heroin and, at least initially, it seems their loutishness is as much a product of their boredom as it is any tendency to self-destruction. Begbie insists he’s happy with alcohol, and he’s the most noxious and catastrophic character in sight. But soon the lure of the smack takes hold, and any thread of self-respect these people may have had begins to unravel. The indignities range from the scatological – there is more poo in this show than in your average nursing home – to the utterly unspeakable. It’s hard to believe, but a heavily pregnant woman being kicked in the stomach isn’t the worst atrocity on stage.
Strangely though, for a play that deals so honestly with the inherent degradations of drug abuse, the viewing experience is riotously entertaining. The performances – especially from Ross as a clownish lord of misrule, Esplin as the touching fall guy, and a genuinely intimidating Dennis – are full-throttled and dangerous, veering from charismatic to alarming in a single beat. The glow sticks passed out to all the audience members, not to mention the driving soundtrack, effectively bring the ’90s rave back to life, and the audience interaction is as flippantly disrespectful as you could hope for. Actors climb on you, spit beer on you, dry root your head, and cover those unfortunate enough to be sitting anywhere near ‘the worst toilet in Scotland’ with what one can only hope is simulated shit.
Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher ramps up the atmospherics and the energy but the costs are also high: there is virtually no modulation of mood or metre. Everything is turned up to eleven, or played at a feverish pitch, which means any attempts at nuance or subtlety are swept aside in the determination to be vital. It’s a typical rookie’s error, to underestimate the audience’s capacity for attention. This is most evident in what should be the most gruelling scene in the play, the death of a baby through criminal neglect. Mistaking shouting for intensity, the cast lose their grip on the material altogether, and the effect is oddly muting.
Last year, Melbourne was fortunate enough to see the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, another stage adaptation of a ’90s Scottish novel. That play dealt with the bad behaviour of young women, and was just as filthy and atmospheric. The key difference was discipline; where that production was tightly choreographed and impeccably pitched, this one lacks cadence and finesse. That said, it isn’t by any means a disaster, because it shares one very important quality with Our Ladies: it’s undeniably authentic. Scotland runs through the veins of these performers, and that alone makes it pretty infectious. You could certainly do worse than a messy night with the lads.
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