The bar is heaving. Outside, in the auditorium, the DJ’s cranking a Prodigy’s greatest hits remix. Talk is loud and it all has the feeling of a rave, or a late night gig. Except it's neither. This is Verdant & Reality:Check Productions “Trainspotting,” in association with MCD, currently running at the Olympia Theatre. And you're either going to love it or you’re going to hate it.
What's there to hate? Almost a quarter-century on from Harry Gibson’s adaptation for the stage of Irvine Welsh’s cult novel, there's no escaping much of its datedness, thematically and theatrically. Like punk, it might have rocked back in the day, but in the intervening years many have rocked better dealing with similar themes, and with greater immediacy and relevance. All of which lends “Trainspotting” more than a whiff of nostalgia. Theatrically, too, Gibson’s script can feel dated and hard work. Like a game of fifty-two pickup, Gibson tosses Welsh’s already fragmented book up in the air from where it falls down into a series of loosely interrelated scenes of varying quality. Observations on British soldiers in the North and Scottish identity feel old, long, and lacklustre, while classics such as the ‘choose life’ monologue still resonate as powerfully today. Yet if some scenes are aces, some jokers, others cards of varying worth, it becomes difficult to string a hand together as a result of constant disengagement, and not solely because of the script. Which is built from incidents and anecdotes that inform, and interrupt, what is essentially one long, insightful, if sometimes insipid, introspective monologue by main character, Mark Renton. Yet perhaps what's to hate most is “Trainspotting” presenting as a piece of supper theatre without the supper, and without properly accommodating to the demands of supper theatre. Disengagement becomes the modus operandi as the Olympia audience frequently head out for drinks, or to chatter outside for smoke breaks, or relieve what appear to be endless bladder infections with constant trips to the restrooms. All of which ensures you spend just as much time watching their backs, hearing their conversations, or getting out of their way, as you do watching the action onstage. Forget about cellphones, of which there are many. Like your mother walking in on you during an intimate moment, this is whole other level interruption and disengagement.
In fairness, with “Trainspotting,” Verdant & Reality:Checks appear to be attempting to reach a hitherto untapped theatre audience, and making a pretty good job of it too. In full disclosure, while there appeared to be several people who left early, with other’s scratching their heads in bewilderment as they left at the end, the vast majority stood and gave a rousing standing ovation. Which, in truth, the experience did not deserve. But the performances most certainly did. Which is what you have to love about “Trainspotting”; four astonishingly strong performances from one seriously talented cast. Lórcan Strain is remarkable as Sickboy, as is Fionn Foley as Franco, both playing several other characters also. Meg Healy as all of the token women in “Trainspotting’s” all male universe is simply marvellous, investing every moment on stage as if it were her last. Shane O’Regan’s Mark Renton, as well as a handful of secondary characters, is next level staggering, with O’Regan confirming his reputation as one of Ireland’s most promising young actors.
And that, theatrically at least, is probably all there really is to love. With sound often poor, accents uneven and rushed in places, key lines, including many of the best of the funny ones, often land on deaf ears. Tracy Ryan’s stop start direction plays like an album with some killer tracks, but with its fair share of filler too. When scenes are on form they radiate this dirty, sexy energy, contagious and irresistible, all wild and physical like a Prodigy track at the start of the night. But all too often Renton, and others, start loving the sound of their own voices. Action stalls and energy dissipates while we drift off into another didactic lecture, or gross anecdote, which not even the best of the gross out humour, not even Iggy or Motorhead, and not even an attempt to salvage a half decent ending can fully redeem.
Which, again, puts the strength of these astonishing performances into perspective. Even if you feel “Trainspotting’s” problems are not worth the entry fee, these performances are worth it several times over. So, on this occasion at least, lets leave the stars aside. For while the experience often felt like two, the performances always felt like ten.
“Trainspotting” based on the novel by Irvine Welsh, adapted by Harry Gibson, produced by Verdant & Reality:Check Productions in association with MCD, runs at the Olympia Theatre until May 12