PORNO at the Arts Theatre
“What keeps this show afloat, while rocking the boat to danger point, are the powerful and charismatic cast members.”
When “Trainspotting” burst onto the London theatre scene back in 1995 it was heralded as one of the ‘most important plays the Bush Theatre has ever presented’. Full of ‘insipient anarchy’, ‘desperate degradation’ and ‘dramatic energy’ it was described as a ‘theatrical stunner’. Irvine Welsh’s novel, published two years earlier, was already a ground-breaking success and the stage adaptation shared its shock value and boldness; jolting audiences out of conventional responses and challenging the rules of what could or should be shown onstage.
A hard act to follow then. Irvine Welsh released his follow up novel, “Porno” in 2002 as a sequel, describing the characters ten years after the events of ‘Trainspotting’, but it took twenty years for it to morph into the stage adaptation that sold out at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe and is now running in the West End for seven consecutive Sunday nights. One hardly needs reminding of the pivotal characters – Mark “Rent Bot” Renton, Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson, Daniel “Spud” Murphy and Francis “Franco” Begbie. At the end of ‘Trainspotting’, Mark Renton had run off to Amsterdam, robbing the other three of their cut of the cash from a heroin deal. ‘Porno’ opens with him having to return to Leith due to his mother’s illness. How will Sick Boy, Begbie and Spud react to his return?
The fourth wall is never broken in Davie Carswell’s adaptation (directed by Jonty Cameron) on account of the fact that there isn’t one at all. The cast mainly address the audience from a sparse set depicting the Scottish pub run by Sick Boy. There is an ironic reference early on to the idea that sequels can never match the original but, despite the tongue-in-cheek reference, the notion starts to ring true as we follow the familiar foursome. This has nothing to do with the performances or the sharp, coarse and often funny writing. It is a wonder that these individuals are still alive. Lessons clearly have not been learned and “choosing life” is still an option beyond their grasp. The shock value, however, is diminished – with the exception of its delightful annihilation of political correctness – and the staging is on the tame side.
What keeps this show afloat, while rocking the boat to danger point, are the powerful and charismatic cast members. Liam Harkins, as Renton, depicts remarkably well the smooth veneer of a man wanting to make good and face up to the friends he betrayed a decade earlier. He manages also to convey the fact that maybe he hasn’t really changed much after all. Certainly, Begbie hasn’t. Chris Gavin is a lethal weapon as the psychopathic jailbird, fresh from a stretch inside for murder (reduced to manslaughter because he turned the knife on himself to make it look like self-defence). Never mind Renton being wary of running into him. The audience would do well to look over their shoulders as they trawl out of the auditorium. Tony McGeever is a smooth operating Sick Boy, not to be trusted. The respectable landlord of the pub shields his true nature – and income from credit card fraud and pornography. We relish in the anarchic disorder of their lives, yet it is only Kevin Murphy’s Spud that we have any real feeling for. Struggling with addiction, and a wife and son, he still possesses the young Spud’s jittery, eccentric mannerisms with a vulnerability we root for. A show stealing portrayal of sadness mingled with hope.
Two new characters are introduced. Tom Carter’s racist, homophobic police constable Knox is an ironic delight, while his daughter Lizzie, played by Jenni Duffy with a carnal gusto that puts the men to shame, is quite something to watch. None of the characters fit into the world they now find themselves in. Unfortunately, though, none of the characters quite fit into some of the cliches that are written into the narrative. Some observations about the ‘then and now’ feel shoehorned and sketchy. A sketchiness that filters through the production to the rushed ending. But it is a predominantly absorbing tale of a group of disparate and desperate people who have failed to move with the times. We wonder how they’ve survived and maybe hope they hold on. Eventually to ‘choose life’. We’re intrigued to see where they’ll go next.
PORNO at the Arts Theatre
Reviewed on 5th November2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Matthew Horwood
Previously reviewed at this venue: