DramaNorth WestReview

Trainspotting Live – Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

Reviewer: Dave Cunningham

Writer: Irvine Welsh

Adapter: Harry Gibson

Directors: Adam Spreadbury-Maher with Greg Esplin and Ben Anderson

As might be expected from any show with the word ‘train’ in the title the performance starts late. The title Trainspotting Live seems redundant as theatre, by its nature, is a live event. It is intended, therefore, to give an indication that, rather than a straightforward adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel, Harry Gibson’s play contains elements of audience involvement and could arguably be considered immersive with events taking place around and within the audience. As one scene involves a character desperately rummaging for drugs in a blocked toilet bowl and chucking the contents carelessly around, the title might also be a warning.

Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher (with Greg Esplin and Ben Anderson) makes clear from the start that the audience is intended to share the highs and lows of people living on the margins of society. The opening drops the audience into a full-on rave. Hope Mill is transformed into a grimy nightclub with ear-splitting acid house music (ear protectors are provided if needed) blasting out and the cast dancing aggressively in front of and around the audience as they timidly try and find seats in the gloom. The stage is a narrow rectangular area running the length of the venue with the audience on either side; sightlines are deliberately dodgy with a druggy mist so thick at times it is hard to see the other end of the stage.

The source novel is a defiant rejection of conventional lifestyles choosing instead an approach so radically different as to be self-destructive even suicidal. The opening scenes of Trainspotting Live emphasise, even celebrate, the squalid hedonism of the characters to the extent that the show starts to resemble a gross-out comedy.

The audience is very much part of the process. When Renton (Andrew Barrett) wakes up from a night on the town to find he has soiled the bed the audience has to dodge fouled sheets and try to come to terms with Barrett, naked and covered in faeces, in very close contact.

There is a sense of the show pandering to audience expectations and generating a Pavlovian response. Renton’s opening monologue rather than a sneering rejection of convention is delivered in the manner of a stand-up comedian performing a much-loved routine with which he is confident the audience is already familiar. It is hard to avoid the feeling of a crowd-pleasing greatest hits package when Born Slippy, from the soundtrack of the film, echoes through the theatre.

A degree of self-indulgence creeps in with the cast breaking the fourth wall and stepping out of character. A naked Andrew Barrett asks a woman in the audience if she has had her money’s worth and, when miming inserting suppositories, advises against studying for drama A-Level.

The over-the-top laddish braggadocio in the opening part of the play, however, creates a false sense of invulnerability which comes crashing down in the face of the dark horror of the conclusion. Gradually the play moves from gross but hilarious sexual and intoxicated escapades towards stark scenes of domestic violence, chilling parental neglect and the casual betrayal of a friend. The futility of the junkie lifestyle is beautifully summarised by Renton acknowledging in a crisis all he can do is offer to cook up some drugs.

Trainspotting Live is an exhilarating and disconcerting experience. It is respectful of the source novel but radical in its imaginative staging and a very committed cast provides a confrontational show demonstrating what is meant by theatre that is in-yer-face.

Runs Until 17 September 2022

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The North West team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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