Theatre review: Trainspotting, Glasgow

The first time I heard Irvine Welsh's voice was in a Radio Scotland feature, back in 1993. All the programme could do, in half an hour or so, was conjure up a brief sense of the atmosphere of his new novel, Trainspotting, then about to be published. Yet I remember thinking this was absolutely new; the voice, the stance, the street-language of working-class Edinburgh, reworked and stylised into a running commentary on our global times with a confidence and swagger I hadn't encountered since John Byrne did the same for Paisley, 15 years earlier.

Lorn Macdonald and Owen Whitelaw. Picture: Shiona Walker
Lorn Macdonald and Owen Whitelaw. Picture: Shiona Walker


Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow

* * * * *

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    And if you want further proof that Trainspotting is one of the great, iconic narratives of the last 25 years, then you should beat a path to the Citizens’ Theatre, where this sharply-timed revival of Harry Gibson’s stage version – emerging just in advance of Trainspotting’s film sequel – is playing to packed houses and standing ovations. It’s a show that comes with a health warning, of course; it’s hard-edged, filthy, and not for those who don’t want to hear a lot about errant body fluids, and solids.

    The transgressive kick and punch of these sequences, though, is absolutely vital in conjuring up the lives of a generation of young men to whom the official moralities and decencies of the society they live in increasingly mean little or nothing. The hero Renton’s famous “choose life” speech says it all, about the progression to suit-wearing salary-slavery that 1990’s youth are supposed to adopt as their dream. And with a main-stage flair and vision that fully matches the intensity of the first studio production of this version, at the Citizens’ in 1994, this inspired new staging by director-in-residence Gareth Nicholls both brings to life the period when Edinburgh was the needle-sharing, HIV-ridden heroin capital of Europe, and makes us feel how utterly unresolved the story’s main dramatic and political tensions still remain.

    RCS graduate Lorn Macdonald is a spectacularly brilliant Renton, sharper than Ewan McGregor, just as charismatic; Angus Miller, Chloe-Ann Taylor, Owen Whitelaw and Gavin Jon Wright are superb in the supporting roles. And on a bleak, fast-moving set by Max Jones with fine lighting by Philip Gladwell, this emerges as a Trainspotting to remember; full of stage pictures that sear themselves on the mind, and of a rage that is all the greater, two decades on, against a society still trying – in much tougher times – to peddle the values that alienated Welsh’s young anti-heroes in the first place, and have even less to recommend them now.

    Until 8 October