Strong medicine

The phenomenon of Trainspotting is gathering pace: the book is now a West End play and will soon be a film. Can you stomach it? By Jim White

The stage version of Irvine Welsh's book Trainspotting previewed in London's West End on Monday in the theatre next to where The Mousetrap is playing. It is an entertaining thought to imagine what might happen should a coach party from Reigate, up to see the world's longest running show, be misdirected and find themselves, rather than watching the chintzy world of Agatha Christie, being confronted by Welsh's disturbing vision of the lives of Edinburgh's poor.

How long would it take them to realise their mistake? As they took their seats, surrounded by the kind of soap-wary young people they have read about in the Daily Mail? As the houselights went down and a shaven-headed youth ran on to the stage and yelled, at top volume, Graham Taylor's expletive of choice? Or as the boy began to spin his opening anecdote, a yarn which centred on him ending up drunk at a girlfriend's parents' house, so drunk, indeed, he soiled the sheets with every possible bodily function. Perhaps, by now, they'd spot their error as he continues explaining how, embarrassed, he bundled up the bedding into a stinking parcel and attempted to make an escape from the house (he will, he claims, return his haul later, nicely laundered). But his path was blocked by the girl's proprietorial mother, who insisted that if there is any washing to be done in her house, she'll be doing it. A tug-of-war ensued in which both parties lost control of the bundle. It arced ceiling-wards, before opening up and parachuting down, depositing the deposits within all over the girl's father, who was just tucking into his breakfast.

"Brown flecks of runny shite stained Mr Houston's glasses, face and white shirt," the boy recounts. "It sprayed across the linoleum table and his food, like he had made a mess with watery chip-shop sauce."

Well, let's hope the Mousetrap party twigged by then. Because from there onwards Trainspotting becomes really unappetising.

"When I came to deciding how to open the play," says Harry Gibson, who adapted the novel for the stage, "I felt I had to choose an episode which was light enough to draw the audience in. You had to start with the purely funny stuff."

There is a sense, though, in which Trainspotting shares one of the values of its neighbour: it is all about escapism. But while The Mousetrap's escapism involves disappearing from the cares of the world for two hours, Trainspotting is the kind of escapism associated with a particularly virulent boil being lanced: a great rush of putrescence which you can't help feeling is better out than in.

Indeed, since Welsh's novel was first published in the summer of 1993 it has exploded, as he might put it, like a squeezed plooky across the mirror of public consciousness. Everyone who has read it (and many who haven't) has taken their own spin on it. Tory councillors in Edinburgh claim its account of life there is a vindictively inaccurate vision of the fair city they sell abroad; New Labour councillors say that the book is right in that folk have suffered in the town under the Tory Government, though perhaps Welsh goes over the top since it is still, overall, a fair city which tourists are more than welcome to visit, provided they don't go to anywhere Welsh writes about. A critic in the Sunday Times opines, salivatingly, that "Welsh writes with a skill, wit and compassion that amounts to genius"; a week later, one of the critic's colleagues suggests in the same paper that Welsh is all hot air: "Working-class violence has an immense appeal to middle-class critics who couldn't punch their way out of a paperback." Across the country, students quote whole chunks of the book at each other as they used to the complete works of Newman and Baddiel; school children secretly exchange battered copies of the book of which they know their parents would disapprove; and the lads of Leith threaten that should Welsh ever return to their manor, he's due a good kicking for stealing all their stories and not giving them any of the subsequent poppy, hireys, or any other local term for money. Meanwhile Welsh himself remains cool and distant, sitting in exile in Amsterdam, saying little, getting his kicks from watching everyone get on with it. As he always does.

So to stage the book is to take a risk. Everyone coming to the play will have their own, fiercely personal, idea of what the thing is about. Harry Gibson, though, wasn't worried.

"The book comes from the great Scottish story-telling tradition," he says. "It is basically a collection of pub yarns, brilliantly realised. But told in a language which is so alive, frankly, all you have to do is put that writing on stage."

Which is what he does, lifting his script unaltered from the pages of the book, limiting his adapting work to editing down the picaresque plot into a form that fits the physical, and economic, constraints of the stage. The language, then, comes from the book fully, faithfully, intact. And it is this language, as much as the contents of the tales, that disturbs. It is a language stuffed with the kind of extreme expletives generally reserved for moments of intense anger or sexual passion (cunt, Mrs Whitehouse will be exercised to know, crops up 137 times in the play). But the violent, drug-fuelled, alcohol-wrecked lives Welsh's characters live ("their life is not just a little bit worse than yours or mine," says Harry Gibson, "it's on another planet") is so intense, such words are the only satisfactory ones for their everyday utterances. Welsh's cunning, however, is that though his lexicon is limited, his rhythm and tone is so fresh it never dulls: the language flies off the page with such velocity, readers can't help ducking. Reading the book is a bit like an encounter with the Tango Man: you get slapped about good and proper.

There is, for instance, a point in the stage play when the female character roars out "cunt" nine times in a climactic yell of defeat and pain. It is a moment almost as difficult to watch as the episode in which a junkie, running out of veins as rapidly as he is running out of options, injects himself in the penis. Well, perhaps not quite.

Language runs from Welsh's characters' mouth like a bad case of diarrhoea. An image, incidentally, that crops up regularly - as it were - in his work. In a diet as unhealthy as his characters, any lavatorial experience (and there are lots of them) tends to be uncomfortable, unhappy and smelly. An apt metaphor for their lives. And he is quite shameless, too: unworried by his reputation or the niceties of convention, he goes far further into the blackness than most of us would dare contemplate and, in a couple of cases which probably shouldn't be rehearsed here, too far for his adaptors to follow.

But the fundamental reason why the book works as a play (and as a film - the screen version will be in cinemas from February) is that the episodic yarns are so perfectly realised, fully resolved novellas, yet all linked by Welsh's mad imagination.

"It felt," says Harry Gibson, "like a bunch of scripts, ready and waiting. It is an amazing pack of stuff that Welsh has given us all to pass round. It will have an amazing energy in any media. It will make an incredible T-shirt."

n 'Trainspotting' is at the Ambassadors Theatre, London WC1 to 27 Jan. Booking: 0171-836 6111

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin