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Trainspotting Live Serves Up Heroin Voyeurism and Stage Poo

Off-Broadway gets an up-close-and-personal look at Irvine Welsh's story about addiction.

Andrew Barrett stars as Mark Renton in Trainspotting Live, directed by Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Greg Esplin, at Roy Arias Stages.
(© Travis Emery Hackett)

An orange sign in the lobby of Roy Arias Stages warns us of what we're about to experience: "Violence! Nudity! Needles! Splatter!" This is the prelude to Trainspotting Live, Brass Jar Productions's transatlantic transfer now disgusting and titillating off-Broadway audiences in equal measure. It bills itself as an immersive stage adaptation of Irvine Welsh's 1993 novel about a circle of heroin addicts living in Edinburgh during the late '80s, a story more widely known through the 1996 film starring Ewan McGregor. Those familiar with Trainspotting will be glad to know that the theater bathrooms remain blessedly divorced from the immersive experience.

I'm referring to the infamous "worst toilet in Scotland," which is prominently placed on the 50-yard line of the in-the-round setup devised by directors Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Greg Esplin (apparently without the aid of designers). In search of two opium suppositories, Mark Renton (Andrew Barrett) paddles through the murky waters of that feces-stained bowl, making sure to splash all sides of the audience. Trainspotting Live is nothing if not egalitarian in its presentation of the seedier aspects of this tale.

Pia Hagen plays Allison and Tariq Malik plays Sick Boy in Trainspotting Live.
(© Travis Emery Hackett)

Renton is our protagonist and he introduces us to his friends and fellow junkies: Sick Boy (Tariq Malik), Allison (Pia Hagen), the hotheaded Begbie (Tom Chandler), and smack dealer Mother Superior (Olivier Sublet), so named for the length of his habit. Tommy (Esplin) doesn't do heroin — at least not at first. We follow them through the highest highs and lowest lows as they ride the roller coaster of addiction.

While maintaining the property's fundamental playfulness and distinctly Scottish genius for profanity, Harry Gibson's adaptation slices Welsh's story down to a brisk 75 minutes, meaning there's really only time for the lurid highlights: The characters shoot up, get in fights, and fling mysterious substances at the audience. We laugh and cringe at their antics as the performers shove their characters' dysfunction in our faces. If you're a woman sitting in the front row, there's a high probability one of the actors will either hit on you or call you a c*nt (or both). An argument could be made that, in the age of resurgent political correctness, shows like Trainspotting represent the closest thing the stage has to punk rock, a decidedly unsafe antidote to the anodyne. But the inevitable question arises: To what end? And that's where my admiration for Trainspotting runs out.

Greg Esplin plays Tommy and Andrew Barrett plays Renton in Trainspotting Live.
(© Travis Emery Hackett)

The sensationalism seems to be the point, rather than the hook through which we can understand an opioid epidemic that is presently devastating communities across the globe. Esplin endows his character's scenes with emotional heft, and we spend the latter third of the play witnessing the lamentable decline of poor Tommy. To his credit, Esplin commits to the part like he's Sarah Bernhardt in La Dame aux Camélias, his eyes stained with real tears. Unfortunately, this tonal shift comes too abruptly for us to fully buy its sincerity.

This is despite emotionally and physically bare performances from the actors. Barrett connects with the audience through his simultaneously fearful and inquisitive eyes, conveying Renton's intelligence and self-awareness. Chandler is positively terrifying as the odious Begbie. As Mother Superior, Sublet is perhaps too hale to be truly convincing as a man with a decades-long opioid habit (although if they ever do an immersive Wolverine, he would be the obvious choice). All of the performers look healthy and attractive, and one suspects that this is not a casting flaw, but a deliberate choice.

Olivier Sublet plays Mother Superior in Trainspotting Live.
(© Travis Emery Hackett)

Trainspotting Live doesn't want to tell the true story of heroin, but the fantastically over-the-top one. When the actors aren't writhing in ecstasy from their last hit, they're wriggling through pools of their own blood and poo. These are the Nietzschean mountains and valleys of mythologized drug addiction rather than the quiet, furtive desperation of the real thing.

Between the in-yer-face ick factor and the flashing strobe light strategically placed over the stage, Trainspotting Live often feels like a heroin-themed haunted house. If that sounds exploitative to you, wait until you hear the rapturous cheers seeping through the walls from the adjacent Drunk Shakespeare. Unlike that very popular show (also produced by Brass Jar Productions), Trainspotting Live doesn't actually require its performers to become intoxicated for the amusement of the crowd.