Station Underground is a 90’s rave. The descent into the bar and cavernous nooks lined with large chill-out sofas is symbolic, but that revelation will come and slap us (repeatedly in the face) a little later. For now, there are bevvies and techno and air that smells of sweat and altered states.
We are about to enter Irvine Welsh’s world of the junky. His first novel, Trainspotting (1993), told of the bleak and brutal worlds in his Scottish homeland (and beyond), centred around a bunch of loosely connected heroin addicts. A cult film directed by Danny Boyle resulted in 1996, and this month, a sequel film is due for Australian release.
A queue forms in front of blackout curtains, behind which, memories of the Chemical Brothers promise good dance beats if not good times. Tickets are exchanged for orange rubber wrist bands embossed with “TRAINSPOTTING Choose life”, as punters wave their glow sticks to the beats, with reminiscences that light a few eyes and challenge more than one memory.
Admission to the main event is orderly; a sentiment we are about to leave behind. We enter a dark, loud and busy club, combining with those already on the dance floor. Some people seem intoxicated, but this is Friday night in an underground bar on Hindley Street; it’s not wholly unexpected.
As the organised chaos begins to clear, I watch several people, wondering which character they are. There is no longer a cast/audience divide. It is a brilliant start.
This abridged adaptation by Harry Gibson is frenetic and action packed, with stories shared and reassigned between fewer characters. The vignettes are tight and create a coherent narrative around which the personalities duck and weave, despite the stories being largely expository and potentially unconnected. Scant mention of HIV is the only noticeable gap in the thread, but times have changed since Edinburgh was known as the AIDS capital of Europe.
Timing, an essential element of this production, is flawless. Lighting, seating and visibility are awkward; at times too harsh, too precarious and too restricted. This ensemble, however, is more than capable of performing above the limitations of fringe theatre. Every member of the cast wins the battle of audibility over an extractor fan, and thickly accented diction is precise and well projected.
It’s the third show of opening night in Australia (sold out), but the Scottish cast maintain boundless energy. The ensemble’s improvisation skills are exceptional. The cast choose their marks well and flawlessly execute an enforced participation with ease and style. It relaxes and entertains those they engage, and makes the rest of us laugh; and not out of pity. They repeatedly prove they have very nearly mastered the art of being highly offensive, without actually offending.
Rolf Harris, Steve Irwin and the Adelaide Festival “patrons” all cop it. The audience wryly appreciates a little localisation with their serving of international theatre. We love a touring group that have bothered to notice which city they’re in (better luck next time Guns ‘n’ Roses).
Not all the gags work; an insult liking a punter to a koala with a particular type of intellectual disability exhibits the line over which this production is prepared to leap. Politically correct, it ain’t, but it aids in cementing the idea that there are no boundaries in this world of addiction and misery.
The shared narrative works well, and excellent direction by Adam Spreadbury-Maher keeps us interested in the stories exposed, and the characters revealed.
Gavin Ross is convincing as Renton, perhaps because he is edgier than his movie counterpart (played by Ewan McGregor), and less endearing. His heavily prop-driven “worst toilet in Scotland” scene is something to behold, if you’re ready to witness a fate worse than a fate worse than death.
Chris Dennis is appropriately vile as Begbie. Exposing the villain we love to hate, his particular brand of violence draws gasps and downcast eyes. Greg Esplin’s Tommy pulls all the right heart-strings through his ill-fated decisions, and Erin Marshall’s grief as Alison is palpable; her anguish believable.
The ensemble’s cri de coer through the strobed scene in which they are losing Tommy is a triumph. The audience engagement here is so strong, that when the strobe ceases, more than one person is revealed to be anxiously gnawing the end off their glow stick.
The violent scenes are particularly arresting, and contrast starkly against the earlier joviality. The black humour of the original text lends no relief. This version, including but not limited to the Vicks Vapour Rub scene, is packed with funnies. That is, right up until the bit where it is so ferociously and gut-wrenchingly not funny. The contrasts are hard to swallow, but one reason why this is a challenging, visceral, roller-coaster of a story, told with the delicacy of a Glaswegian kiss, by people you would be unlikely to invite home.
This is a production of extremes. The soaring highs and the plummeting depths are experienced, rather than communicated; surely the objective of great theatre. It’s an emotionally bumpy ride, but if you have a strong constitution, it’s worth it.
This review was made possible by the generous donations of Limelight‘s readers through our Australian Cultural Fund project