If I were to say, “I’ve just watched a play about Scotland, the 90s, pills, parties and the darkest recesses of human desperation,” you’re probably more likely to think Trainspotting than Simon Donald’s The Life of Stuff, winner of various accolades in the year of its first production. Even though Irvine Welsh’s book and Donald’s play surfaced around at the same time, Donald’s 1992 play is widely unknown today. That apparently unwarranted obscurity is the impetus behind Paul Robinson’s production, as part of Theatre 503’s Second Look strand of work. Yet, despite the classic tunes, fine performances from a consistently excellent cast (including a live snake), Robinson can’t quite make this period piece sit comfortably, or perhaps uncomfortably enough, for today’s audience.
If you can fathom it, The Life of Stuff offers a somewhat darker, bloodier world than Welsh’s heroin-addled one – perhaps because the action is contained claustrophobically within one dilapidated warehouse. Casual sex (the soul-depleting rather than glamorous kind) and casual drug-taking are the order of the day. The lows set in early, mainly because the highs never arrive – dodgy drugs courtesy of big-talking Dobie (Gregory Finnegan), the small-time crook and dealer landlord who has gathered a motley crew of henchmen and ‘floozies’ for an ominous-sounding party. We’re certainly thrown in at the deep end amongst the action (and thick accents) but it’s all part of the ‘fun’. The man who is really running the show – Sinatra fan, caretaker and part-time violent psychopath Arbogast (Cameron Jack) is trying to rouse his strange band into cleaning up but they’ve got other ideas. Best friends Holly and Evelyn (Paula Masterton and Pamela Dwyer) dressed at the height of fashion (cringe) are only interested in the major chemicals they’ve been promised. Eczema-ridden Leonard (Rhys Owen) wants only to be taken seriously, and consequently has chopped the toe off the pharmaceutical student who cooks up drugs for arch-rival Sneddon (Ben Adams) – the drugs-baron who we soon discover has been handily dispatched, hence the celebrations.
As you’d expect from an award-winning playwright, Donald’s writing is sparky, speedy and littered with surprising poignancies. Despite their many, many flaws, Donald is compassionate to his characters, and the cast work wonders with the intriguing and nuanced personalities they are given. Claire Dargo’s fiery, fragile and unwittingly hilarious Janice soon became my favourite character, even if (and maybe because) the first major thing she does on stage is vomit, before being locked in the basement with the nervous but kind-hearted Fraser (Owen Whitelaw). Sporting a creative take on the undercut (think bald patches), Whitelaw spends the entirety of the play in a pair of aged underwear that leave so little to the imagination, it’s proof of his talent that we manage to focus on his face. Owen is also brilliant as the terrifying/adorable Leonard, Paula Masterton gives depth to the spacy Holly, whilst Pamela Dwyer is subtly scene-stealing as the smart, sarcastic and reluctantly sober Evelyn. The aesthetics, too, are perfect – designer James Perkins’s industrial wasteland of a set exudes such a pervasively grim air of squalor that you can almost feel toxic fumes soaking into your pores, whilst Johanna Town lights the space ingeniously with a chaotic array of lamps and neon.
Having enthused so much, it’s hard to insist that something is conspicuously absent from this production. Perhaps the problem is, oddly, the play itself – the fact that The Life of Stuff doesn’t quite hold our attention because it is critiquing a radically different society. Poverty-stricken, yes, but there is nothing austere or cynical enough about it – it’s all too languid and hedonistic, nothing near to the end-times atmospherics of doom that make ’90s playwright Philip Ridley’s work still so reliably relevant today. The remote familiarity of the ’90s means The Life of Stuff lacks the sharpness needed for satirical contrast whilst also rather redundant as social observation. Whatever punch it once packed lacks violence now, and we end up as alienated observers to a series of events with which, despite everyone’s best efforts, we cannot fully engage.
The Life of Stuff is playing at Theatre503 until the 4 May. For more information and tickets, see the Theatre503 website.