Transgressive fiction is known as literature that deals with characters who feel confined by the expectations of authority figures and society and wish to break free of those confinements in taboo or forbidden ways. Dealing with self-identity, inner peace or personal freedom, often the protagonists of transgressive fiction are seen as mentally ill, anti-social or nihilistic by a conforming society and the transgressive author draws the reader into the world of the protagonist achieving incisive social commentary. Often dealing with drugs, sexual activity, violence, incest, pedophilia, and crime, the genre has been subject to controversy and many authors including William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch), Allen Ginsberg (Howl) and Hubert Selby Jr. (Last Exit To Brooklyn) have been the subjects of obscenity trials.
During the early 90s with a rise of alternate rock and its distinctive sub-culture, it was never easier for transgressive fiction authors to find success. Writers such as Douglas Copeland penned the term ‘Generation X’, Bret Easton Ellis wrote satirical novels about yuppie serial killers and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting dropped in 1993. Like it’s predecessors, the novel shocked readers and was rejected from being shortlisted for the Brooker Prize as it reportedly offended the sensibilities of two judges. The story of Renton, Begbie, Tommy, Alison and Sick Boy and their heroine fuelled existence in Edinburgh rose to cult fame in the 1996 film Trainspotting, however Welsh’s novel was firstly adapted for the stage in 1994 by Harry Gibson. Upon attending a rehearsal for the original production, Welsh commented that he “Saw it for the first time how others were experiencing it. I felt the power of it for the first time. I walked out there believing that I had actually done something special. I knew it would be a great play.”
Some twenty-odd years later a new production of Trainspotting is showing at The Vaults in Waterloo. A joint production from the Kings Head Theatre and Seabright Productions (Showstopper! The Improvised Musical and Potted Potter) this immersive production has been staged with audience sitting amongst the action all around the specifically built space in the Vault’s Smith’s Arcade. As a fan of Trainspotting and transgressive fiction I was very keen to see this new production that promises to come to life ‘with humour, poetry and provocatively graphic scenes across 75 intense, immersive minutes.’
My first visit to The Vaults, I instantly thought the venue must be a shared space and hoped that the extremely loud music pumping from the club next to the theatre space, wouldn’t interfere with the show. In my post-work daze it took me a moment to realise that the extremely loud pumping music, WAS the theatre space. As I exchanged my ticket for a glow stick wrist band, I knew this was going to be a theatrical event like no other. Knowing I was heading into a club-space filled with bodies, laser lights and glow sticks, I stopped off at the bar on the way in and grabbed a much needed beer. I entered the space and was shown to my seat by the cast, decked out in glow sticks and dancing appropriately manic. An audience member in front of me spilt her drink and the cast reacted how any of your mates would react if a drink was spilt late in the evening; “Ohhhhhhhhh!” And we took our seats for Trainspotting.
This production of Trainspotting features a Scottish cast, many of whom have been with the production in it’s various forms for two- three years. Gavin Ross plays ‘Renton’, Greg Esplin is ‘Tommy’, Chris Dennis portrays ‘Begbie’, Michael Lockerbie is ‘Sick Boy’, Erin Marshall plays ‘Alison’ with Calum Barbour and Rachael Anderson playing various characters including ‘Mother Superior’ and ‘June’ respectively. Gavin Ross’s bio in the programme says that he is a huge Trainspotting fan and it shows. His performance as ‘Renton’ was all encompassing, the audience follows his journey from junkie to sober feeling his trials and tribulations in a raw performance. Ross handles the text well, hilariously adlibbing with an audience member who stared at the wrong part of his anatomy for a little too long during an early scene. As ‘Tommy’ Greg Esplin’s performance is affecting. We meet him, an occasional drug user and see his transition to addict when a relationship ends badly. No mean feat for any actor, Esplin’s understanding of the text and world the characters live in is evident as the audience feels for ‘Tommy’s’ plight and grieves with the rest of the cast when the unthinkable happens. As ‘Begbie’, Chris Dennis gives a thrilling, menacing performance and Erin Marshall’s tragic ‘Alison’ and Michael Lockerbie’s ‘Sick Boy’ are performed with an authenticity that’s heart breaking. Calum Barbour gave a fun performance as broken dealer ‘Mother Superior’ and Rachael Anderson’s ‘June’ gave some funny moments early on. Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s direction achieved believable performances, drawing the audience into the story with the use of poetry and humour to depict the graphic and violent world they inhabit.
Often at press nights I’m seated around an older audience, the well-to-do theatre critics representing an audience that can usually afford to pay for the theatre they’re reviewing. At Trainspotting I looked around the audience and saw a millennial aged sea of faces all engaged and ready for a good time. From the pumping club entrance into the theatre space, faeces covered duvet thrown onto the audience, audience members being threatened with knives, the contents of a toilet bowl strewn onto the audience and a cast member who sat on me throughout an entire scene, Trainspotting was exactly as it had been described ‘75 intense, immersive minutes’. Fresh and engaging, and extremely well performed, audiences were coerced to participate which made Trainspotting a conversation between actors and audience, truly immersive and well suited to the piece. Like the novel and film, Trainspotting has it’s own audience and use of strong language, nudity and drug use may not be for everyone. As a piece of theatre, this Seabright and Kings Head Theatre production of Trainspotting is alive and full of life and I urge audiences to get tickets quickly to experience Trainspotting as it should be seen, a rush from start to finish.
Reviewed by Stuart James
Photo: Geraint Lewis
TRAINSPOTTING plays at The Vaults until 15 January 2017