Trainspotting Live - photocredit Geraint Lewis

Review: Trainspotting Live

Review: Trainspotting Live

Irvine Welsh’s gritty tale is taken to a whole new disturbing level with an immersive stage play


When it was published back in the 1990s, Irvine Walsh’s tale of heroin addiction in a poverty-stricken part of Edinburgh was gritty, shocking, as controversial as hell but also genuinely moving. The subsequent film, with its killer soundtrack, captured its power perfectly. But an immersive play makes it more raw than ever.

It has won plenty of plaudits already, and after returning to the Edinburgh Festival in the summer and to shows in Glasgow, it has just had its first night in London at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios and… wow, what a rollercoaster.

The first signs you are in for something different is that instead of an allocated seat, you are given a coloured glow-stick to go around your wrist to show where you are to sit. (We could hear one woman saying she wasn’t going to be at the front – and we were soon to see why). Second, you’re ordered at the door to turn your phone completely off, read the trigger warnings and instructed ‘not to touch the actors’ – before being thrust into a small rave complete with gurning staggering dancers giving you big lairy hugs (so much for the no touching).

We had been warned it was an ‘immersive’ take on Trainspotting. We had no idea what to expect. The first half of the show is mainly played for laughs – at times it feels almost slapstick with naked actors slipsliding around in ‘shit’, and resulting excrement-covered sheets being chucked around the auditorium, at others moments it’s like you are at a comedy night with the actors dealing brilliantly with any comments from hecklers. The actors sit among the audience swigging out of vodka bottles, chucking insults at everyone, or pulling them up for particular attention (this is why you avoid the front row!). There’s some hilarious parts such as a lubing mishap with a mix-up between Vaseline and Vicks VapoRub. And it’s a laugh-out-loud funny start but I began to wonder how on earth they would carry off the brutal dark parts of the story.

But then, there it is, bang, the mood changes suddenly and the audience is hit with most breathtakingly horrific aspects of Trainspotting. If you’ve seen the film or read the book, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, I really do advise you read up on the triggers. The story still has the power to utterly shock. The cast come in to their own (Andrew Barrett (Renton), Greg Esplin (Tommy), Olivier Sublet (Mother Superior, Begbie) Lauren Downie (June &  Allison) and Michael Lockerbie (Sick Boy). We see the desperation, temptation, and fallibility of their characters, and it’s heartbreaking. The small cast takes on various different characters through the evening, which is impressive, and they grab these physically and emotionally demanding parts with gusto. The team’s efforts were rewarded with a justly deserved standing ovation.

The hugely mixed audience (hipsters, oldsters, fans of the book, fans of the film and complete newbies) filed out to Underworld’s Born Slippy, which became the film’s iconic anthem. Chatting to a few of them afterwards, one woman revealed she didn’t know the story but had seen the play up in Scotland. She loved it so much she came again, and brought her friend. She noted that the atmosphere had been quite different in Edinburgh. It is close to home, literally. And some in the audience looked visibly distressed to watch in parts. At another performance, the show apparently had to be stopped because a woman was so upset by the dirty sheets being thrown into the audience. The nature of the immersive play means that each night could be totally different.

While Trainspotting is set in Edinburgh, the themes are universal. There’s friendship, family, desperation, violence, hypocrisy –  and wondering about the meaning of life.

In Renton’s gloomy assessment, as he attempts to justify why he chose heroin over a ‘mediocre’ existence… we fill up our lives with things like careers and relationships to delude ourselves that it isn’t all pointless.

“Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting on a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pushing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced.”

Trainspotting Live is bleak, humorous and human, and it makes for the the most powerful piece of theatre I’ve seen in a long time.

LONDON – Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
18 Oct – 6 Nov – TICKETS

SOUTHAMPTON – MAST Mayflower Studios
9 – 12 Nov – TICKETS

Trainspotting Live

Image: Geraint Lewis