Irvine Welsh on his three Edinburgh Festival Fringe shows

Perhaps more than any other author you can think of, people tend to confuse Irvine Welsh with one of his characters. Mention his name, especially in the streets of Edinburgh, and most people will think of someone out caning it in a club till the small hours, or at least mouthing off drunk in a pub somewhere down in Leith.

Expat Irvine Welsh's wilder days may be long over but he tells a fellow author why he can't wait to party in Leith.

While he is not averse to the occasional indulgence (I can vouch for that personally, having shared a few nights out with the big man), the day-to-day reality is somewhat different. Our phone conversation is scheduled for 1pm in Scotland, which means it’s 8am in his Miami home. I double check with the PR – 8am, really? Maybe he’s been out all night. Welsh laughs at the suggestion when I mention it down the line.

“I’m a pretty early riser these days,” he says. “And I’m working flat out on different things at the moment so I need to keep reasonable hours.”

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Interestingly for a novelist, hardly any of those things are book-related. Welsh has long dabbled in writing for theatre, film and television as well as the books, but recently those other forms have become his focus. “The great thing about writing a book is that you do it in your own time so you’ve got control,” he says. “When you get involved with film and theatre nothing happens for a long time then everything happens at once, so you have to have multiple projects on the go. With Trainspotting 2 being such a success, it’s got everyone fired up again about all the other projects I’m involved in. So things are a bit crazy.”

While much of the film and television work is still in the pipeline (a movie about Creation Records’ boss Alan McGee and a TV adaptation of Welsh’s novel Crime starring Dougray Scott amongst them), it’s the theatre projects that have got off the ground first. Welsh has three plays at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, and an intriguing and diverse bunch they are too.

First up is Creatives at The Pleasance, billed as “a dark comic pop-opera”, set in Chicago in a songwriting class, and co-written with author Don De Grazia. Welsh has long split his time between Miami and Chicago, and his wife is a native of the city, so he knows the place well. The show already has had a limited run in Chicago, but Welsh claims that was more like a workshop than a finished theatre experience. “It was really experimental, we developed the script with the actors as we went along, every night was totally different,” he says. For those shows, Welsh called in favours, getting permission to use songs by New Order, Iggy Pop, The Cure and Simple Minds. “We weren’t able to license them for the full show but they were invaluable in kick-starting the whole process,” he says. “By the end of it we had a really tight show, quite edgy and dark, but uplifting as well.”

Since then Welsh, De Grazia and songwriter Laurence Mark Wythe have been working hard to replace the borrowed tunes with original compositions, changing the nature of the show in the process.

“The new songs are working really well,” says Welsh. “We’re moving it from being a pop opera to more of a straight musical, letting the songs tell you about the narrative and the characters.”

In the play, a successful pop star returns to the songwriting class to judge a competition, invoking jealousies and revenge, in a story that tackles the modern conflict between creativity and commercialism.

“It feels very contemporary,” Welsh says. “Everything’s culturally contestable – politics, music, sexuality. The show has a wide cast of musicians, all from different ethnicities and musical backgrounds, from American Idol wannabes to indie rock and hip hop kids. It’s a ‘ship of fools’ piece really; everyone has their obsessions and vanities and foibles.”

And so from contemporary Chicago to Sixties London with Welsh’s second Fringe offering, Performers, which is running at The Assembly Rooms. The play revolves around the making of the cult film Performance, which was directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring James Fox and Mick Jagger. It sees Welsh partnering with longtime collaborator Dean Cavanagh, and Welsh says the inspiration for the piece was all his partner’s.

“Dean’s obsessed with the stories behind movies. We’ve done something like this before; our play Babylon Heights was about what happened behind the scenes during the making of The Wizard Of Oz.”

Released in 1970, Performance brilliantly depicts the dark weirdness at the tail end of the Sixties, and the avant garde making of the film has gone down in movie folklore.

“Britain was changing, the sexual revolution was happening, and Nicolas Roeg was trying to cast real East London and South London villains to play some of the gangsters in the film,” says Welsh. “Class barriers were breaking down as well, and this movie was like a bridge between the West End and the East End.

“We thought it would be interesting to capture all that in an audition piece, so these two gangsters come along, one’s very ambitious and wants to be a movie star and the other one doesn’t get it, just thinks it might be a nice little earner.”

The play is directed by Nick Moran, the actor probably best known for appearing in Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, and stars two born-and-bred London actors, Perry Benson and George Russo. “They’re proper Londoners and they make it fly,” says Welsh. “It’s like poetry listening to them.”

As well as these two new offerings, Welsh’s Trainspotting Live theatre show is returning to the Fringe, this time at the EICC. It has been touring and selling out all over the place, getting rave reviews in the process.

“They’re f***ing killing it, they’ve been all over the world, it’s amazing,” says Welsh. “That show really sets the bar high for the other two. We’re determined to get something up to that level, which is going to be very hard.”

Welsh suggests that, taken together, the three plays give an insight into his psyche. “We’ve got a story of Edinburgh junkies in the Eighties, London gangsters in the Sixties and Chicago musicians today, that’s quite a nice collection,” he says, laughing. “That’s three cities that are really close to my heart, and it feels great to have them represented at the festival in my home town – that’s a buzz.”

As if that wasn’t enough, Welsh will also be appearing at a special Neu! Reekie! cabaret club night celebrating the original Trainspotting at the Leith Theatre on the 11th of August. It’s a fundraiser for the Leith Theatre Trust, of which Welsh is a patron, and will feature a screening of the movie, a set by enigmatic indie veterans, The Fire Engines, and a DJ set by Arthur Baker. Welsh also lets slip that he’ll be “doing something with Ewen Bremner”, but won’t say anymore than that.

“It’ll just be a big f***ing party, basically,” he says. He pauses for a moment, as if picturing what it’ll be like.

“It should be a good night,” he says, deadpan.

So maybe he won’t be up at 8am doing interviews the day after that.

Performers, Assembly Rooms, until 
27 August, 4.45pm; Creatives, Pleasance, until 28 August, 4pm; Trainspotting Live, EICC, until 27 August, various times

Doug Johnstone is appearing at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 23 August at 9pm and 25 August 
at 2pm