Trainspotting review – Renton and co return to the stage with raw power

Citizens theatre, Glasgow
Harry Gibson’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel about urban alienation speaks as loudly, scabrously and irreverently as ever

They used to call it “the Aids capital of Europe”. A crackdown on drug use in Edinburgh in the 1980s made it harder for users to acquire clean needles, so it soon became home to a generation of needle-sharing addicts. The HIV virus proliferated, in a city with a history of heroin abuse.

Throw in a reaction against the loadsamoney capitalism of the Thatcher era and you understand something of the desperate undertow of Irvine Welsh’s landmark novel. The larky imagery of Danny Boyle’s 1996 film adaptation sticks in our heads – Ewan McGregor et al hot-footing it down Princes Street to the rhythms of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life – but Trainspotting is also a novel of serious social commentary.

That’s what director Gareth Nicholls appreciates in this gutsy mainstage production. Yes, there is a steady supply of gross-out gags, some almost cosily familiar after all these years, but he sets them in their proper context. You see it in the superb set design by Max Jones, a desolate, stripped-back stage, often bare but for a mattress sheltering under the edifice of an Edinburgh high-rise, all boarded-up windows and cold grey concrete.

In this space, the characters are scattered into the corners, isolated and self-absorbed, only occasionally united in the camaraderie of drink. They seem haunted and exposed beneath the acute angles of Philip Gladwell’s lighting. The changing colours of the overhead strip lights make them more pallid still.

Watch a trailer for Trainspotting

Lorn Macdonald, as Mark Renton, understands the combination of fierce intelligence and self-destructive callousness that makes this narrator at once charismatic and deeply untrustworthy. Scrawny and gaunt, he is as desperate as he is charming, a hero by default, simply for being less gormless than Gavin Jon Wright’s hilarious Spud, less psychopathic than Owen Whitelaw’s hate-filled Begbie and less naive than Angus Miller’s vulnerable Tommy.

He delivers the famous “choose life” speech to the sound of New Order’s Blue Monday, not long before the stage explodes into a techno-fuelled rave populated with a club’s worth of young dancers (sharply choreographed by EJ Boyle). The music of abandon, made ominous by the drones and rumbles of Michael John McCarthy’s score, is the flip-side to a dead-end life of signing on and dropping out.

Even the sex is more of an animalistic duty than a happy release. All the more credit to Chloe-Ann Taylor who is valiant in the female roles, from sassy schoolgirl seducer to mind-numbed addict.

Harry Gibson’s adaptation is in robust form, if a little more exposed on the main stage than it was in the original Citizens’ 1994 studio production, its origins as a novel (and a piecemeal one at that) more apparent. After nearly a quarter of a century, Welsh’s language is not the revelation it once was, but it retains its raw energy and the capacity to pull you up short with the shock of its gallows humour. As it begins the transition from contemporary classic to period piece, Nicholls shows Trainspotting still speaks loudly, scabrously and irreverently about urban alienation and young lives under pressure.


Mark Fisher

The GuardianTramp

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