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Having parted with 55 bucks for the privilege, Trainspotting Live attendees can expect to be variously insulted, spat upon, shouted at, drizzled with the contents of a shit-smeared toilet, and forced into extreme proximity to both male asshole and uncut Scottish dong. You will, if you choose to insert yourself among the forty or so willing captives cloistered within the airless confines of Roy Arias Stages’ slender black box above Eighth Avenue, be menaced by a madman with a shiv and subjected to seizure-level strobes; in one especially harrowing passage, you’ll endure the sight and up-close shrieks of a pregnant woman battered with fists and choked with a belt. When the makers of this thing warn you that it’s an “immersive” interpretation, you’d better damn well take them at their word.
You will also, if you’re anything like me — or like my fellow captives at both of two showings I caught last week, who responded at play’s end with a roistering standing O — find yourself emerging from this dirty little chamber, this fetid box with obscenities scrawled all over its walls, astonished by how moving the experience wound up being. At some point along its 75 minutes, so slyly as to be almost imperceptible, this Trainspotting shifts gears from gross-out comedy to poignant cautionary tale, buoyed by a pair of dazzling performances.
Not that you haven’t seen precisely the same trick before; it is, after all, what made the original Trainspotting film such a marvel, this protean ability to fire on every cylinder it assayed, moving with effortless grace (per Danny Boyle’s assured string-pulling) from flaneur cult comedy to crime caper to sneakily tear-jerking bildungsroman. Trainspotting Live might not enjoy the same success with each of the guises it tries on — a game Tom Chandler can’t quite replicate Robert Carlyle’s glowering volatility as Francis Begbie, and Tariq Malik is somewhat wasted, excuse the pun, in the bottle-blond Sick Boy role — and yet it does manage, sans proscenium or even much of an actual plot, to effect much of the same emotional gravitas.
Here’s the thing, though: Trainspotting, as in that 1996 film everyone you know saw, is just one of many, many vehicles for a cast of characters that — it’s by now well proven — can hardly be contained within a single movie, or genre, or indeed even format. That you’ll be willing to accept the goings-on within this particular, erm, staging — that “Why the black box?” or “Why no fourth wall?” will likely hardly even register as what might be an expected sort of prima facie question — is probably down to a certain priming achieved by all those previous iterations with which you (self-selecting, willing captive) are no doubt at least marginally familiar. For, at this point, Trainspotting isn’t just a novel, or the stage play based thereon (the one you’ve read about that featured Ewen Bremner, soon to be immortalized as Spud, as Mark Renton), or the famous film that catapulted Ewan McGregor (as Renton) to international superstardom, or the prequel Irvine Welsh then wrote, or the sequel, or the underwhelming screen adaptation of that sequel, or the occasional other Welsh story in which one of these people pops up. It’s more like an extended Trainspotting universe by now, which Trainspotting Live knows — dig that reference to The Acid House impastoed prominently along one wall — which means that rarely has such a batshit idea made such intuitive sense.
Even so, the architects of Trainspotting Live have settled on a strategy of keeping things grounded in the familiar, at least in terms of scene-specific content. The beats here largely follow those of the 1996 film, though with Spud wholly absent, having been composited, in a kind of half-and-half way, into Renton (Andrew Barrett) and Tommy (co-director Greg Esplin); the famous sequence in which Spud wakes up in an unfamiliar, pink-sheeted bedroom, covered in his own sick and shit, now goes to the former, while it’s Tommy — given Spud’s last name of Murphy — who gets the whole amphetamine-aided job-interview jag. At least for its first two-thirds, Trainspotting Live is structured as a procession of these tableaux, without much in the way of seeming rhyme or reason as to what follows what, and with the occasional non-film scene mortared in between the hits: The “Choose Life” monologue (ad-libbed, on the second night I went, to include a brief berating of a late-arriving audience member) gives way to an Ecstasy-fueled rave, which yields, the hungover morning after, the bed-shitting episode; but after that there’s a cutaway to a scene in which someone called Laura McEwan (Lauren Downie), attempting to lose her “anal virginity,” accidentally lubes up poor Tommy’s excited member with Vicks VapoRub.
From there we’re into Begbie’s introduction (the “pool cue” speech, roughly verbatim from the film), Sick Boy calling the audience a bunch of cowards, the DHSS interview, an unfortunate encounter with a West Ham United fan, the “relinquishing junk” grocery list, the sequence involving opium suppositories being inadvertently shat into the “worst toilet in Scotland,” whereupon they must be retrieved, by hand, with no shortage of splashing…etc. I don’t mean to minimize some of the fine acting on display throughout this much of Trainspotting Live — Barrett’s a charismatic wonder with precisely the lithe build of the young McGregor, which I can attest because a goodly chunk of the early proceedings features the actor completely, unabashedly nude; Esplin, meantime, shows early signs of stealing the show — but at this point I couldn’t shake the feeling of watching a lesser-than run-through of the film, with deleted scenes thrown in to ensure I was getting my money’s worth.
But then something unexpected happens: Call it gravity descending. It starts with a pair of domestic-violence segments, the first set in a pub (setting, by the way, is left to a sort of chorus of all the actors uninvolved in a scene to deliver by way of quick-cutting cross talk) in which Tommy attempts to intervene in a lovers’ quarrel rapidly becoming ugly; the episode ends with the woman defending her abuser and lashing out at the interloper. The second — likewise from the original novel but not in the movie — features a rare glimpse at Begbie on the home front, threatening to walk out and then doing far, far worse to his pregnant paramour. If this little diptych doesn’t exactly initiate a firmer plot (say, the way the film does with the “big score” storyline), it at least signals a shift in tone, away from the bawdy early incidents and into altogether heavier subject matter.
As if to emphasize this descent into darkness, Trainspotting Live spends the remainder of its running time in the heavily shadowed heroin-dealing den of the Mother Superior (Olivier Sublet), and in Tommy’s threadbare apartment, no more than a mattress on a floor, Tommy having persuaded Renton to let him try the skag, gotten hooked, and contracted HIV by way of the needle. And here not even a choice bit of badinage (Sick Boy calls Renton “skinny Uncle Fester”; Renton retorts that his mate’s a “knockoff Andy Warhol”) or the Mother Superior’s planting one on a supine, doped-up Tommy can lighten the mood to within a mile of that earlier comic lightness; any audience involvement seems, by this point, completely out of the question. Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” issues softly, as if from another room (Tom Lishman’s sound design is an understated beauty throughout); out-of-scene characters repeat an earlier line about junk making its user seem somehow childlike and beautiful, this time to haunting effect, not to be quite believed. Staggering to his mattress, Esplin’s naked Tommy spits up blood before curling arthritically into a fetal posture; in a gravelly, attenuated voice bearing not a trace of his earlier vim and vigor, he accuses Renton, too, of having shared needles in his day, a useless protestation against the injustice of it all.
What you will remember from Trainspotting Live, after all’s said and done — what you will step out of the little room and down the stairs and back out onto Eighth still reeling from — won’t have much to do with the gamesmanship afforded the play by dint of its “clever” presentation, nor the swearing, the nudity, the toilet humor or toilet nastiness, not even the on-the-nose title-repeating clunker of a final line. What’ll be emblazoned in your mind’s eye will be the trad-actorly work put in, especially toward the end, by the magnificent Esplin and Barrett, their pair of friends, formerly ablaze with life, reduced to tearstained twin husks howling at the void. Maybe, as if in relief, it’s the modish comic setup that permits this late tragic transcendence. In the end, though, Trainspotting Live attains its raw power the same way the theater’s been doing it since time immemorial: through committed — incredibly committed — performance.