Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh is at The King’s Theatre in Edinburgh this week (14-18 November) bringing one of the most generation defining novels of its time back to Edinburgh, if not actually its home in Leith.
Trainspotting of course is based on the 1983 novel by Irvine Welsh but with the global success of the 1996 film adaption, it is often overlooked that this story’s first steps outside of the printed novel were as a stage play in 1984 adapted by Harry Gibson, so in this sense, Trainspotting is returning close to its original roots.
I have to admit that, despite being a massive critical and commercial success, the film has never been on my favourites list. I found it to be a relentlessly grim and at times ugly piece of work – far from the humorous and socially defining film that many people seemed to see. I wanted to see the stage performance though for several reasons
- I had missed it first time round
- Was this closer to the source material anything like the film
- Lorn MacDonald who plays Mark Renton has been attracting some serious attention as a young and upcoming actor.
“Trainspotting” the stage production is as relentlessly grim as the film (and book), but somehow there is more honesty here and for me it is with its distillation of story line and characters far more powerful than the film. As the warning with the production tells you, there is nudity and a lot of explicit language here, but this is the world of our “Trainspotters”. This is a story focusing on a people and their drug addictions, and at one obvious level shining a spotlight on a society and issues that many would just prefer to either look the other way from, or walk away quickly from, but Irvine Welsh choose to stay, observe and comment.
Trainspotting was full of school pupils for this performance as the book is currently on the Scottish Schools study curriculum, and it is easy to see why. The choice of the material with its graphically explicit scenes and constant explicit and bad language may seem an odd choice to some people, but there are many issues to this story – a disenfranchised generation, economic decay (Central Station in Leith has long been closed down), gang violence, and of course Renton’s salvation from his problems to for the moment “Choose Life”.
Lorn MacDonald is outstanding as Renton, and without doubt has the potential to be a major figure in theatre (and if he chooses television and film). Renton, is always a bit of an odd character – yes he has a major addiction, but that has not dulled a sharp mind that is questioning everything around him including social and political order. Our opening scene shows him more than aware of the system to be abusing it to his own needs.
All of our other cast members - Martin McCormick, Gavin Jon Wright, Angus Miller and Chloe-Ann Taylor are excellent in their parts (or multiple parts) and bring to life characters who at times are simply deeply unpleasant. This is a grim story and there are some deeply unpleasant scenes here – how they react to a cot death and Begbie attacking his pregnant girlfriend are two that come immediately to mind.
Irvine Welsh has observed, more than created, a sub-culture here and wisely made no attempt to gloss and varnish this world. This is Trainspotting life in all its ugliness, yet still shining through for some is that hope of escape from their addiction – but they have to want it themselves, no one else can provide the time or place that change might come.
I hope that our youth as they study this work at school manage to see past the bad language and the black humour to see not only the uglier side of substance addiction, but also in a character like Tommy just how swiftly a totally unexpected descent into it can happen.
Review by Tom King