Review: Trainspotting Live (The Vaults)

The adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s cult novel returns to the subterranean Waterloo venue

Andrew Boal in Trainspotting Live
James Boal in Trainspotting Live
© Geraint Lewis

In Your Face Theatre’s seventy-minute immersive adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s classic 1993 cult novel about heroin addicts in Leith has been around for a while now. It debuted in 2013, was a smash-hit show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014, went on a national tour in 2015, returned to the Fringe in 2016, toured worldwide in 2017, and is going back home again to Edinburgh, via New York, this summer.

It’s had a few London runs in that time, too, first at Islington’s King’s Head Theatre, then at The Vaults, where it’s just taken up residence again, playing twice a night until June. And, in all that time, adapting to new venues and cast-changes, it’s lost none of its gritty, guttural intensity.

It sits somewhere between the book and Danny Boyle’s 1996 film. Harry Gibson’s 1994 adaptation is closer structurally to the episodic outline of the book, only streamlined and re-ordered with some characters cut, but Greg Esplin’s original direction is unashamedly proud of the film’s iconic legacy. There’s plenty recognisable to revel in, not least Chris Dennis’ impenetrably Scottish, ceaselessly furious Begbie, and the blissful intro to Underworld’s "Born Slippy".

Fair warning, though, it is pretty full-on. In the funnier, frothier first half-hour are all the disgusting, funny bits. Frankie O’Connor’s Renton wakes up in shit-stained bedclothes, which he proceeds to fling into a squealing audience. He cleans himself up, shoving his bare, brown arse into unfortunate spectators’ faces. He dives into The Worst Toilet In Scotland, scattering soiled, soggy toilet paper everywhere. It’s horrible, hilarious stuff.

The later scenes are much grimmer, much bleaker, but no less intense. Explicit needle-use, extreme violence against women, cot-deaths and HIV all crop-up regularly. If the first half makes light of just how far a junkie will go for his fix, the second makes unforgettably, uncomfortably clear the traumatic consequences of heroin addiction. When Finlay Bain’s Tommy – Renton’s only sane, relatively straight-laced friend – fatally slides into using, it’s almost too difficult to watch.

Trainspotting Live is a production well-suited to The Vaults. Now Vault Festival 2018 is over, and the fairy-lit fantasia has been packed away for another year, the venue is ugly and unforgiving. The show is tucked away in a low-ceilinged side-chamber, its long, thin, transverse stage bookended by a bare mattress at one end and a shapeless sofa at the other.

There’s probably a conversation to be had about boundaries, and how In Your Face could adapt things so that anxious audience members won’t have Begbie screaming swear-words in their face, or Renton’s sweaty ballsack dangling inches from their nose if they don’t want it. But then, that’s all part of this unique show’s grungy appeal. The content warnings are there for a reason.

Trainspotting Live runs until 3 June.