views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The King's Head Theatre
21st March 2015


Gavin Ross as Mark Renton

Photography © Christopher Tribble

Normally when I walk into the King's Head Theatre, it's all very civilised, with allocated seating and a polite talk about the venue's lack of funding and the large, empty buckets available for us to deposit spare change into should we wish. I know what I'm getting. I hadn't yet seen the film - yes, I know, now duly corrected! - and the theatre had run out of programmes, so I couldn't have gone into Trainspotting any more unaware had I actually been blindfolded.

What met me was not anything like middle-class favourite OperaUpClose, but an electric, intense club night with glow sticks, dodgy stains, full nudity and loud, thick Scots brogue. The venue's AD, Adam Spreadbury-Maher, who co-directs this piece alongside the company's AD, Greg Esplin, clearly finds great delight in taking people's expectations of his venue and subverting them. Traditional theatre, opera, sure. He can programme those if he wants. He can also programme this. You'll never think of the King's Head as predictable again.

Clearly, I'm not the only person who hadn't watched the film before booking a ticket, because there were at least two walkouts. Let me make something clear: this is a horrific, disgusting, highly visceral and probably downright offensive show - but that's what makes it so damn good. In Your Face Theatre have created something which attacks all the senses and conveys the true bleakness of drug addiction. Yes, it's light-hearted in many places, but it's also grim. Really really grim. And that means things have to happen on stage which aren't very nice. If you like your trad stuff, with a nice firm fourth wall, this may not be for you - you really do need an open mind to enjoy it. But if you have no limits and just like good theatre, this is an unforgettable experience.

If you're not familiar with the story - originally a book by Irvine Welsh - you're now in a club of one, but it revolves around Renton (Gavin Ross), his friends Tommy (Esplin), Sickboy (Neil Pendleton), Alison (Erin Marshall) and Begbie (Chris Dennis) and their individual and collective relationship with heroin. We see their normal: not just the highs, but the downright degrading lows involving dirty duvets and the worst toilet in Scotland. We don't care about any of these people, but Renton serves as our anchor and as a kind of anti-hero. Best of a bad bunch, really, so we attach ourselves to him by default.

Publicity photograph for Trainspotting

Photography © Christopher Tribble

In Danny Boyle's big-screen take, there's a playful tone set from the very beginning in the narration by Ewan McGregor and the choice of music. Spreadbury-Maher and Esplin place a similar importance on music, with plenty of instantly recognisable 90s tunes which immediately bring you back to that era. (Bit of Blur, anyone? How about a Chumbawamba singsong?) Lighting designer Tom Kitney and sound designer Hannah Allan work together brilliantly in the opening rave scenes, and provide a more subtle support to the production subsequently.

In cutting Trainspotting down to only 65 minutes, there isn't as clear a through line as there is in the film: here we're shown a series of vignettes rather than a complete story. And there's less foreshadowing, which diminishes the power of the first properly sad moment. But the cuts are all carefully considered, and it's largely a case of trimming the fat rather than getting rid of anything crucial. Comparing both adaptations, I think some really smart choices have been made in paring it down to just over an hour. You don't get as much time with Begbie, and some of the characters - notably Spud - have been marginalised, but if you desperately want to see someone getting glassed in the face and kicked in, you can always jump on the Caledonian Sleeper and head over to Leith.

Much of the early interaction with the audience is for shock value, and whilst I can't help but feel this is a little cheap, the audience wholeheartedly embrace it. Mainly when it's happening to other people. (Ah, Schadenfreude, not entirely a German concept.) This isn't quite immersive theatre, you're not expected to join in, but few seats are safe from bodily fluids and profanities. Don't wear anything you're wouldn't be happy to get trashed, and don't wear any shoes you're not prepared to stand in.

Trainspotting is a cleverly crafted adaptation which revels in its challenging and provocative nature. It's not ideal date night fare - unless you want to win eternal affection by becoming a human shield - but take a group of open-minded friends and you'll have a night to remember. This isn't easy to watch, but that's the point.

Trainspotting ran from 17th March to 11th April at the King's Head Theatre. It next runs from 10th to 31st August 2015 (not Tuesdays) at Assembly George Square Studios.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)

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