First published in The Times, Thursday September 22 2016
It is now 20 years since Danny Boyle’s film version of Trainspotting burst onto cinema screens, and it is fascinating to note the degree to which its structure and imagery have almost supplanted Irvine Welsh’s nonlinear source novel and the 1994 stage adaptation by Harry Gibson. This revival, directed by Gareth Nicholls for the Citz, owes a marked visual debt to Boyle’s movie, right down to the bold orange-and-black lettering on the promotional material.
It is not only the look of Nicholls’s production (designed by Max Jones) that vividly recalls the celluloid version. Where Gibson’s original script, written for the Citizens, took a similarly episodic approach to Welsh’s novel, the structure has been rejigged and some scenes ditched in order to give the action a cleaner narrative arc. Inevitably, the show now culminates with the famous “choose life” speech delivered by Renton (Lorn Macdonald) as he makes off to Amsterdam for a new start with the spoils of a small-scale heroin deal.
Pic: Tim Morozzo
None of this is to say that Nicholls’s production is ever less than engaging, but it does feel at times like a tribute act rather than a fresh take on familiar material. Nonetheless, sections of the opening night audience loudly express their appreciation at being reacquainted with the more stomach churning elements of Welsh’s unflinching oeuvre. There are whoops in advance of the scene in which Spud (Gavin John Wright) recounts waking in his girlfriend’s house covered in his own excrement. Applause greets the episode in which Renton is forced to hunt through his own diarrhoea for a lost suppository.
As these episodes, and even many of the individual lines and speeches, have become so iconic, much of the suspense in this production comes from waiting to see how Nicholls will tackle key scenes. The most satisfying coup de théâtre arrives with the club sequence, when the backcloth falls away to reveal a horde of hitherto concealed extras rising up out of a cloud of dry ice.
Pic: Tim Morozzo
Yet, while this revival undoubtedly features more theatrical flourishes than its stripped-back Nineties predecessor, its major pleasures still lies in the lower key sequences, when the five excellent leads, most of them doubling roles, each step up to take a virtuoso turn. Chloe-Ann Tylor gives a brilliantly understated rendition of the episode in which put upon waitress Alison takes a grisly revenge on some boorish diners. And Owen Whitelaw brings such a discomfiting ambivalence and vulnerability to the sociopathic Francis Begbie that it makes you look anew at Welsh’s notorious hard man.