14 Sep 2016 to 8 Oct 2016
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
The death of ecstasy-victim Leah Betts in late-1995 cast a gloomy shadow over substance abuse in the UK two decades ago. While the perils of party drugs distressed a scintilla proportion of the country, the perception of drug users, and substantially harder, more addictive narcotics, were counter-balanced by Irvine Welsh’s book ‘Trainspotting’ in 1993, Harry Gibson’s theatre production in 1994, and Danny Boyle’s film in 1996. This was to become one of the most vital stories narrated during the 1990s, studying the lives of four friends as they delve into the drug culture of Leith during the late 1980’s in an effort to escape from the hopeless world they find themselves living in.
Courtesy of Citizens Theatre itself, the lives of Mark Renton, Simon ‘Sickboy’ Williamson, Francis Begbie, and Danny ‘Spud’ Murphy returned to the hallowed main stage of Glasgow’s Citizen’s Theatre after a notable absence, guided at the wings by revered director Gareth Nicholls, whose previous productions include ‘Into That Darkness’ and ‘Blackbird’. In terms of both novel and picture, Trainspotting holds a place in the heart of most 30-somethings who badly wish to see every element of its reputation succeed, preserving its creditable stock and prolonging for future generations.
Reprising the roles made famous onscreen by the likes of Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle, tonight’s cast had the unenviable task of staying true to both book and picture, whilst also lending its own black humour into proceedings. Playing the lead as Renton was Lorn MacDonald, a tall, skinny, ranting sphere of machismo who required only twenty seconds before the first mention of drugs entered the fray during the opening interview sequence alongside Spud, played by Gavin Jon Wright. The youthful energy cascaded by both actors was a genial welcoming into a forbidden world, rousing the audience with the unmistakable twang served up by author Welsh. The grubby, insanitary stage was laid out for the introduction of Sickboy performed by Angus Miller, and Mother Superior played by Owen Whitelaw; the latter of which made a stunning appearance from the inside of a couch. It was Mother Superior, dressed in effeminate clothing and twirling around the stage which chiefly grabbed the eye, a large departure from Peter Mullen’s robust performance in the film, whilst serving up a homoerotic, scene-polluting number at the same time Alison, played by Chloe-Ann Tylor, Sickboy, Renton and Spud tightened the tourniquets around their arms in preparation for the first, slow junkie dance. The injection scenes are, as one should expect, fairly harrowing – an intelligent use of illumination and rumbling sounds flooding with the actors’ gasps and groans. This is no glorification of drugs, despite what the monologues ladled by Renton may have imposed upon the audience.
It is testament to author Welsh’s dramatic writing that frequently the highlights of the performance whittled down to the lone dialogues delivered by the cast, adopting narrator roles to the audience. From Sickboy’s gross attack on Shane the pitbull to Alison’s uterine lining complimenting a bowl of soup, the cast were at their foremost when the stage was reduced to a chair and a voice. That is not to dismiss the impact that a busy stage offered when a nightclub scene flooded with pulsing dancers alternated between standing, sitting, gyrating, and swaying, both in the foreground and in the background, during Renton’s first unsuspecting meet with schoolgirl Diane, also played by the talented, afore-mentioned Tylor. Having previously reviewed Tylor during a performance of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I was privy to what a convincing actress the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduate can be, and there was no anti-climax tonight as she teased, toyed, and delivered a wicked temptress performance. Renton’s chameleon-personality simmered throughout this scene, flitting between politics and music in an effort to win Diane’s affections, while an animated bevvy of dancers maintained the youthful energy in front of a shrewd sex scene.
Dark comedy is etched throughout Trainspotting, glittering in the shadowed piss-soaked curtains while Spud regales a story of an unfortunate accident and Renton’s realisation that he has become a sex offender, but the tenebrosity of Alison’s baby Dawn’s cot death is an acutely distressing scene. These moments often allowed the cast to ignore their audience and concentrate on those under the dimmed lights, with Owen Whitelow’s turn as Mother Superior often more savage than his second role of the evening, the renowned Francis Begbie; none more so than when he rages with a black bin-bag intended for the deceased infant.
In his secondary role as the ill-fated Tommy, Angus Miller flits between his characters with an ease which enables the audience to establish which turn is being performed instantly, regardless of Tommy’s double-denim fashion being an obvious cursor. Although the nod to Tommy’s demise is clearly affiliated with the picture (in the book no such thing happens), director Gareth Nicholls remains faithful to scenes from Welsh’s initial written creation addressing Renton’s soldier brother and Begbie’s alcoholic father with a susceptivity which addresses a true representation of industrial working class people. Recently, producer Harry Gibson was quoted in The Herald saying “Trainspotting was a punk book and a punk play”, and this quality ebbs through the imagery, the dialogue, and the DIY ethos conjured by lead Renton’s ambitions, consistently putting himself first before friends or family. Whether it be the colourful pink lights and confetti cannons during Renton’s AIDS test or the tense, psychotic attempted murder of Renton by Begbie at Leith Central Station, the stage craft flowed with Welsh’s words, Gibson’s vision, and Boyle’s sensory depictions. Not forgetting the glorious compositions spun throughout the evening by Michael John McCarthy, webbing and weaving dialogue between sounds of horror and unbridled elation which captured each fitting mood, this was a truly triumphant return to the Citizen’s stage.
A special mention to Gavin Wright’s turn as the unfortunate but eternally-likeable Spud – every twitch, shuffle, facial expression and response was received with glee and captured everything and more that the audience have associated with the character. Preconceptions are a difficult thing to shake off but rest assured that this play will win you over and reignite your love for the film prior to the sequel which is due for release in early 2017. Choose life, choose Trainspotting at the Citizens.
Reviewer : Stephen Watt