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Exploring Addiction Through Immersive Theatre

By: Jen Gushue
Date: Jul 16, 2018

Trainspotting Live is giving audiences a rush Off-Broadway


Inspired by Irvine Welsh's eponymous novel about a motley crew of young drug users wreaking havoc in '80s Edinburgh, Trainspotting Live lands stateside at Roy Arias Stages after years of touring the U.K. and beyond. Although this version blends elements from the book, Harry Gibson's original stage adaptation and the 1996 film that launched Ewan McGregor's career, it feels entirely fresh due to its immersive, no-holds-barred nature.

Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher joined the project in 2015 when Scotland's In Your Face Theatre asked him to helm the show at London's Kings Head Theatre, where he serves as artistic director. Spreadbury-Maher is the one who suggested turning it into an environmental experience with almost no fourth wall to speak of, transforming the playing area into a cavernous drug den with quippy political slogans and vulgar Scottish slang spray-painted in glow-in-the-dark neon on every surface. That anarchic spirit spills out into the audience, so be prepared to be touched, splashed and possibly sat on.

From the moment you set foot in the theatre, you're invited to be part of the action, as the cast encourages spectators to rave with them before the show. Each theatregoer receives a glow stick that serves as a ticket, so you can jump right in and dance to '80s house music with the drunk and debauched denizens. Spreadbury-Maher sees this as a way to transport audiences to '80s Edinburgh so they get hooked on the scene. It's a seduction that mirrors the beginnings of addiction.


For many, "it starts with lots and lots of fun," says Spreadbury-Maher, who spoke with several recovering addicts during the creation of the show. "Friends hanging out together, going to parties, and then there's that tipping point in the play, just like there is in life." The entertainment and raunchy humor get you in the door, your emotional investment takes you deeper and then tragedy strikes as the characters hit rock bottom. No longer are these your goofy buddies that you laughed with at a pub or ridiculed strangers with on a train -- two bits in the show when viewers become part of the play. These mates morph until they're unrecognizable, succumbing to the violence and dangers of addiction.

It's at this juncture that Trainspotting Live allows the audience to step back a bit, transforming into more of a traditional show. Actors cease invading the house and the gross-outs -- like the scene entitled "The Worst Toilet in Scotland" -- that were shockingly humorous are now just shocking.

Spreadbury-Maher's goals for the show are manifold. "I want it to be unpredictable, I want it to be fun, I want it to be dangerous, I want it to be scary," he says. And the whirlwind 75 minutes of Trainspotting Live are all those things and more, taking audiences on an emotional journey that traces the arc of addition. "It's with a huge amount of humility and respect that we're able to engage with anybody who comes to see the show who may be recovering or who may be in addiction or who may have lost loved ones to addiction," he says. "We're grateful to be able to share a piece of art together that will be a really fun night out, but will also provoke some thought."

To read about a student's experience at Trainspotting Live, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.


Jen Gushue is a freelance theatre writer with bylines in American Theatre, HowlRound and Business Insider. Follow her on Twitter at @jengushue. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Andrew Barrett in Trainspotting Live. Photos by Travis Emery Hackett.

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Jen Gushue is a freelance theatre writer with bylines in American Theatre, HowlRound and Business Insider. They are also the Senior Product & Reviews Editor at The Good Housekeeping Institute. Follow them on Twitter at @jengushue.