THEATRE REVIEW: Trainspotting, King’s Head Theatre

runs until 11 April

Click here for more information.

I felt sorry for the elderly couple who left this production of Trainspotting after the first scene; I don’t think they’d realised what they were letting themselves in for, despite the warnings on the flyer and the immense reputation of this cult classic book and film. In Your Face Theatre certainly lives up to its name with this immersive, intense adaptation that throws you unavoidably right into the action of Mark Renton and his drug-fuelled world of 1990s Edinburgh. In the knowledge that my parents and grandparents sometimes read this blog, I’m not going to repeat what was shouted into my face by an angry Scot in the early stages of the show – but trust me, if it had been outside on the street on a dark night I would have felt more than a little alarmed.

Neil Pendleton (Sick Boy) and Gavin Ross (Renton) Photo (c) Christopher Tribble
Neil Pendleton (Sick Boy) and Gavin Ross (Renton). Photo (c) Christopher Tribble

I can’t imagine seeing this show, which originally played at the Edinburgh Festival, in a traditional theatrical setting. Its power would surely not be as great without the effect of the immersion, which begins even before you enter the auditorium, on receiving a glowstick and a stamped hand as if entering a nightclub. This theme continues inside, as you find yourself surrounded by ravers with more glowsticks and a thumping 90s soundtrack. Once the action gets under way you’re at risk of being verbally assaulted, hugged, or becoming a close witness to violence or drug-taking. However, the show doesn’t just rely on shock factor – this is an impressive cast who show nuance and skill in their craft, as well throwing in plenty of blood, sweat and tears.

Gavin Ross as our anti-hero Mark Renton is hilarious, disgusting and moving in turn; from that oh-so-quotable “choose life” speech, to the details of heroin addiction and withdrawal, which are played out in nasty detail. There is plenty of humour, but also truly disturbing and affecting moments, such as Renton’s insistence on a hit after the tragic death of a child. Chris Dennis impresses as Begbie, a violent life force who fills this small space and engages terrifyingly with his audience at threateningly close quarters. Other stand-outs include Neil Pendleton as ‘Sick Boy’ and Calum Douglas Barbour as ‘Mother Superior’, unsettlingly calm in the face of chaos.

Harry Gibson’s adaptation (which has won praise from author Irvine Welsh himself) condenses the action into just over an hour, although it feels somewhat longer (not in a bad way). While the story can be a little hard to follow in its episodic nature – and due to the potentially unreliable narration of Renton – it relentlessly forces your attention onto the downward spiral of these characters; just as Renton begins to get his life cleaned up, tragedy strikes elsewhere, and the moving final scene by candlelight truly brings home the bleakness of addiction.

Chris Dennis as Begbie
Chris Dennis as Begbie

The set is as foul as the language, and you depart with some sense of relief that you can leave this horribly realistic world behind. Yet at the same time it’s a thrilling ride, and a real lesson in how to do immersive theatre well. Putting the audience constantly on edge, In Your Face Theatre provide a wild night of theatre that is unlike anything else you’ll find in London this month. Not necessarily ‘enjoyable’ in the traditional sense of the word, but well worth a visit if you’re not too faint-hearted!

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