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Trainspotting (King’s Head Theatre, London): Review

trainspotting
trainspotting

Gavin Ross getting himself into a shit situation! Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

In A Nutshell

In Your Face Theatre’s acclaimed Edinburgh 2014 Fringe production of Irvine Welsh’ Trainspotting is a dirty and delirious trip!

NB This review was written during the 2015 King’s Head Theatre and Edinburgh Fringe Festival runs. Please note that some changes may have been made to the production.

Overview

Meet Mark Renton: drug addict. We follow his life through the drug-fuelled squaller of Scotland’s 1990s narcotic underclass. But when does the party have to stop?

Adaptation

Irvine Welsh’ infamous 1994 novel is no stranger to pop-reference. Famously made into a film in 1996 by Danny Boyle, Trainspotting has becoming a defining story for an entire British generation and left an unmovable mark on the canon of British cinema and culture. However, unbeknown to most, Harry Gibson’s stage adaptation actually pre-dates the film. Celebrating 21 years since Trainspotting was first published, In Your Face Theatre join forces with the King’s Head Theatre to bring their 2014 Edinburgh Fringe revival to London.

Most notable is Gibson’s condensing Trainspotting into a mere 60 minutes: a lot shorter than the film. But it doesn’t lose anything or does anything badly by comparison. In its brevity, this snappier, more focused version is perhaps more powerful and succinct than the film. In saying that, audience members should certainly not expect Boyle’s iconic piece of cinema: after all, this is an adaptation of the book and not of the film. Once you accept this, it opens you up to the grit of Welsh’s actual narrative, in all its filthy humour and harrowing dramas.

What really marks Gibson’s adaptation of Trainspotting out is how he handles the narration passages of the text. There are moments where various cast members will describe what’s going on, giving an insight into the psyche and the mire-clad intelligence and humanity of Welsh’s tale. There’s a brutal and visceral sense of poetry in these moments. Nothing fancy or flamboyant, but with a rhythm and metre that teases out some scraggily beautiful evocations and poignant titbits.

Trainspotting’s structure seems a bit disjointed a first, with scenes following on from each other seemingly bearing little relevance to an overall direction: they just feel like sordid and flippant vignettes of debauchery. However, everything slowly comes together and builds Trainspotting to a rather intense climax, where redemption is not always what you might think. It’s starts with your head spinning and your pulse racing – feeling like you may have popped a little something yourself before the show – crescendoing in an epic and brutal comedown that’s soberingly human.

For the most part, Gibson’s adaptation is quick-fire, bounding from one scene to the next. Yet, the only criticism is that sometimes the pace drops a little too much. It’s not that these scenes badly written or paced themselves, but they feel like they drag by comparison. You’re on a squealing high as fake poo is being flung around the room at one point, only to be met with the rather modest saunter of the following scene, such as watching Mark and Tommy go through job-interviews. Whilst these moments are still a funny and tilted look at life whilst being constantly off your face, it just irks and frustrates as the adrenaline falls away too quickly.

Trainspotting

(from left) Chris Dennis, Gavin Ross, Greg Esplin, and Neil Pendlenton. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Direction & Production

It’s no wonder that In Your Face Theatre’s production of Trainspotting was met with such acclaim last summer in Edinburgh. This is possibly one of the boldest and far out approaches to the theatre experience around. Done away with most of the seating and any sense of traditional stage set-up. Co-director and Artistic Director for In Your Face Theatre, Greg Esplin, teaming up with the King’s Head Theatre’s Adam Spreadbury-Maher, turn the auditorium of the King’s Head Theatre into the filthiest crack den you can imagine.  Scenic Artist Sandy Hale has done a brilliant job for Trainspotting, splattering the walls with god-knows-what stains, marks, and graffiti on every inch of them. The space is also literally littered with a ramshackle collection of junk and possibly the filthiest carpet known to mankind. Thankfully, the only thing Hale hasn’t recreated are the smells and bio-hazards. It really adds to the immersion of Welsh’s filth-ridden world. It’s disgusting and oppressive; perfect for the Mark Renton’s nightmarish roller-coaster ride.

Yet there are some issues with the style of “immersive theatre” here. When you enter the show, you walk into a full on rave, and forced to find your position (don’t expect actual seating) and/or join the bouncing around of the cast. But afterwards, that’s almost it for audience participation, making the entrance rave feel more like gimmick than dramatic fodder. For the rest of the show the audience are mostly passive, even though the play is going on in-front, around, and between them. The audience aren’t really involved per se, apart from getting flung with fake faeces, pushed passed, yelled at, ejected out of their seats, or even have their drinks used to wash the actors’ faces. It’s less that they’re immersed and more that they’re inconvenienced.

Otherwise, Esplin and Spreadbury-Maher do an excellent job of making sure no-one in the audience loses out on any part of the show regardless of where they position themselves. Yes, there’s might be a little craning of the neck at points, but you don’t ever feel like you’re missing out on anything by choosing to be where you end up, even if you are jostled past or boosted out of your seat.

There’s plenty of other little details in Trainspotting that are worth noting, too. Whilst the soundtrack to Boyle’s film is as celebrated as the feature itself, Sound Designer Hannah Allen could have spent plenty of just effort pawing over which 1990s ‘choones’ to use. But the execution of these is actually far more impressive than the selection from the acid-house back-catalogue. There are moments in Trainspotting where instantly recognisable hits are muffled or distorted, creating an eerie aural sense of atmosphere, there there’s toying with volume at points also create some incredibly forceful dramatic moments too. Allen shows that it’s not just about what you use, but how you use it.

Tom Kitney’s lighting design is also really incredibly meticulous. It’s not often lighting designers get to incorporate disco lights and lazers into a production, enabling Kitney to create a crazy sense of colour and dazzling lights that trigger euphoric disorientation. At the same time, Kitney can also use a harsh wash to strip away the daze of narcotics and create the unflattering and dismal realities that the characters try to escape. Together, Allan and Kitney create a really intoxicating and blurry world that pushes Trainspotting’s energy and really lifts the scenes and teases out some incredibly stunning moments.

Shooting for the stars. Gavin Ross as Mark Renton. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Shooting for the stars. Gavin Ross as Mark Renton. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Cast

The energy of the cast really drives Trainspotting. From opening rave to final thoughts, they never stop careering around the room, shouting, punching, and twitching. All are abrasive but astonishing. But that doesn’t mean to say that any subtly is lost in their energetic and exhausting performances.

Leading the cast as Mark Renton, Gavin Ross gives a base and visceral performance. He really teases out his character’s sense of defeatism and general awkwardness, veiled with Scottish humour and bravado. Despite the swearing, the shooting-up, and the shit-sifting, Ross makes Mark an incredibly charismatic character who still manages to charm despite being degrading and dirty. There’s a dangerous vulnerability which seeps through his being, turning the audience to deep sympathy by the end of the show.

Also worth a mention is Chris Dennis as Begbie: an immensely aggressive powerhouse and a force not to be reckoned with. There’s a real terror in his violent demeanour, making it uncomfortable to be in the room with him at any point, even if you can’t quite understand him through his thick swaggering accent. He’s an utter nightmare that never waivers as he threatens and spits at both cast and audience members alike, bringing out a real unpredictable and viscous feel to Trainspotting.

Verdict

Choose the Assembly George Square Studios. Choose bold and wild theatre that takes no prisoners. Choose life. Choose filth-ridden brilliance. Choose Trainspotting.

Trainspotting plays at the King’s Head Theatre, London, N1 1QN, until 27 February 2016, before embarking on a national tour. Tickets are £15 – £19.50. To book, visit www.kingsheadtheatre.com.