Even with the spectre of Danny Boyle’s iconic movie hanging overhead, the Citizens’ new production of Trainspotting is a compellingly directed and outstandingly acted blast through Irvine Welsh’s cult novel that remains as energising and skin-crawlingly unsettling as ever.
Following the structure of Welsh’s retch-inducing tour through the wasteland of 1980’s Leith, Trainspotting is a series of vignettes from the residents of this Thatcherite No-Man’s Land, centering on self-confessed smack addict Mark Renton and his mates – Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie – all hung together on the string of Rent’s struggle to choose life; choose that fuckin’ big TV. Or not.
With Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle and Johnny Lee Miller on the movie’s star roster, every cast member here has massive shoes to fill. None more so than Lorn MacDonald. But the same relentless intensity that fueled his Orestes in This Restless House earlier in the Citz’ year is a great fit for Renton’s narcotic-induced smart-arsery. A huge plus this time is seeing MacDonald’s talent for dead-pan comedy alongside his embodiment of Rent’s emaciated, pitch-black nihilism.
Gavin Wright is bang-on as the gormless and mostly-harmless Spud, getting the the most laughs with exceptional comic timing and the his uncanny ability to look like a wee boy caught in polis headlights. Owen Whitelaw brings more menace to his cold-hearted drug-dealer Mother Superior than to his Begbie, but his exceptional doubling (if there’s a character onstage in heels and sequins it’s most likely Whitelaw) is a witty foil for the radge’s infamous psychopathic tendencies.
Rounding out the gang, Angus Miller has the looks but not the cold-eyed charisma to pull off Sick-Boy’s magnetism. He’s more effective as the tragically out-of-his-league Tommy. Chloe-Ann Tylor’s underage siren Diane is a little dull beside her fantastically-pitched Alison, whose gleefully vengeful second-act monologue gets one of the loudest rounds of applause of the night.
Audacious direction from Nicholls and movement director EJ Boyle, makes full use of the cavernous maw of the Citizens’ stage. With chronology never being much of a concern, the cast hurl from scene to scene in sync with the ebb-and-flow of their chemical highs. For them, Max Jones’s multi-layered set creates a literal underworld. The shadowy outlines of Leith’s decimated terraces above are barely seen, despite taking up much of the height of the performance space. Below is where the action happens: an echoing, ever-fluctuating space illuminated by Philip Gladwell’s six stark and emaciating fluoros – a sick flare of light in Renton’s psychological wasteland.
Michael John McCarthy has a tough job re-scoring the play when Danny Boyle’s iconic soundtrack is still regularly voted one of the best of all time, and his music choices are fitting if not staggeringly memorable. But the thumping beats of his newly composed score immediately has the audience on-side, clapping and whistling along.
Even twenty-three years after publication, Trainspotting begs to be an immersive experience, and the story’s impact in the womb of the Citz’ glitzy interior is a little dulled by memory of seeing the movie on the big screen. But Nicholls’ production wears this inevitable comparison lightly, and works as a different beast, powered by uncompromising performances and exceptional direction that reward being seen up close. Here’s hoping that over the next two weeks the good citizens of Glasgow forego a night in front of their fuckin’ big tellys and head along to a rowdy night at the theatre instead.