“Basically we live a short and pointless life.”
This athem of Irvin Welsh’s novel Trainspotting, and its story of drug addiction and disillusionment, is familiar to most through the film (starring Ewen MacGregor). However, a powerful production by New Farm’s Nash Theatre proves that is a story that deserves to be told within the theatre.
Instead of presenting the seedy underworld of Edinburgh for our voyeuristic pleasure, director Cam MacDiarmid shows that this is “not a play about heroin but about outcasts” . By capitalising on the play’s storytelling style, the actors are able to develop a sense of intimacy with the audience in order to share their characters’ experience of the world. MacDiarmid also aims to emphasize the currency of the play’s issues by pointing out that: “as you watch the performance tonight, a “Drug Arm” van will bring a meagre meal to a shabby scrum of homeless kids, prostitutes, alcoholics and junkies within meters of this theatre” (Director’s Notes).
Adapted for the stage before its film premiere, this is a confronting story, by turns humorous and horrific in its portrayal of a young heroin addict Mark and his friends and family. Using the style of direct address, the play uses multiple narrators to present a range of different characters’ experiences and opinions. MacDiarmid’s direction places the focus on each character’s story through deceptively simple staging, and the use of split focus and freeze frames.
The use of split focus (in which the story is narrated in one part of the stage and acted out in another) works to illuminate a character’s point of view. For example, while “Sick Boy” and “Lizzie” are shooting up stage right, Mark relates his experience from the other side of stage. Thus this scene becomes an insight into the experience of taking heroin, rather than a demonstration of drug taking. In the same way, the use of freeze-frames mid-scene allow the audience to focus on one character’s experience of an event. This device is powerfully utilized while “Tommy” is observing a woman being beaten by her boyfriend and is deciding what course of action to take.
Michael McMahon’s cluttered, angled set provides plethora of small spaces and levels for different scenes. It is a barebone set, realistic in dilapidated appearance yet abstract in its multiple uses. An upstage door becomes front door, bathroom entry and bathroom; and varying levels of rostra serve as a bed, a lounge room floor, and a pool table. This simple setting is brought to life by BJ Eddleston’s lighting design based on the creation of small spotlit areas. These work to draw attention to various aspects of the set, effectively creating realistic scene changes. In addition, the repeated use of different coloured lighting on different areas creates a dreamlike sense to the play, as if we are viewing the character’s memory of an event.
These aspects of the direction and design place the actors’ work at the heart of this performance. And the actors’ deliver! Convincing, unaffected and well-paced, all the performances are marked by sincerity and commitment.
Scottish-born Stuart Waters carries the show as Mark. In a performance that reaches out to the audience, he skilfully shares the humour and horror of Mark’s tale of sex, drugs and excrement. In particular, his portrayal of the experience of going “cold turkey” made the audience squirm with discomfort. Waters’ Scottish tongue is also a great asset to the show, and despite slight the lapses, the rest of cast convincingly carry off the poetry of the Scottish accent.
There are also standout performances by Michael Churven (as Tommy and Sick Boy) and Helen Christinson (as Alison, June and Lizzie) who realistically present character changes without unnecessary “character markers”. Rob Currie handles character definition in multiple roles, but needed more dynamics, and variation to bring interest to his longer monologues. Bella Sipthorp and Glen Player provide strong support in smaller roles and understudies.
Unfortunately, the show flags in the second half. After the skilfully paced and polished first act, the second act felt awkward, and had a suddenly, uncomfortable ending which made it seem under-rehearsed. (Perhaps this Act would benefit from cutting, a change in pacing, or a change in the order of scenes.)
The play justifies a “R” rating for its portrayal of drug use and sex, but the fact that these “acts” are mostly acted out by one character makes them less offensive. It also helps that they are presented with humour and honesty. Overall it was the clarity and honesty of Trainspotting that affected me most. This is a potent piece of storytelling that merits a large audience.
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