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"Choose Facebook": How Trainspotting 2's updated speech falls flat

The references to social media in the the latest trailer for T2 have none of the impact of the original Trainspotting speech.

Choose life. Choose Vine. Choose hashtags. Choose Facebook Live. Choose Bitcoin. Choose memes. Choose the gig economy. Choose the dog face Snapchat filter.

This isn’t quite how Irvine Welsh updated the iconic Trainspotting speech for the trailer of its long-awaited sequel, T2, but it’s close. “Choose life. Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and hope that someone, somewhere cares,” opens Renton, paving the way for a speech that name drops zero-hour contracts, revenge porn, and slut-shaming.

And I get it. When a bunch of writers sat around to contemplate how to update a 20-year-old speech for the modern age, these are the topics that would naturally come up. And it might have worked if, you know, they weren’t making a film about 45-year-old ex-junkies with a penchant for crime.

That’s not to say, of course, that 45-year-olds ex-junkies don’t use social media. It’s just that it all feels slightly inauthentic. Sick Boy, Renton, and Spud would probably have Facebook – in 2016, it’s almost illegal not to have Facebook – but would they really snap their avocado toast for the Insta Likes? “Aha!” you say. “That’s the point. They’re mocking people who do!” But that’s where it all falls flat. The original speech worked because Renton was taking aim at people older than him, with their new washing machines and electric tin-openers, but now he has become every other baby-boomer on the planet, convinced that a teenager taking a selfie is one of the seven signs of the impending apocalypse.

Despite this, the trailer is undeniably good. It’s hard not to be excited about seeing familiar faces back on the big screen, and it’s clear that the plot won’t consist of watching Sick Boy try to level up on Candy Crush Jelly Saga. But if the characters aren’t sat around using social media, why talk about it in the speech? 

Take the reference to revenge porn. Anyone who’s read Welsh’s Trainspotting sequel, Porno, will be happy that this at least hints towards a similar plot. But people who share pornographic photos of their ex-lovers don’t do it after sitting down and saying, “Ah, yes. Time for a spot of revenge porn.” They just do it. Revenge porn is a helpful title for headlines, but in this speech it sounds heavy-handed. As a plot, revenge porn is fine. As a soundbite in a speech, it jars.

Then there’s the line: “You’re an addict so be addicted; just be addicted to something else.” Hopefully this is hinting towards the bags of pills and Sick Boy’s cannabis farm that we see in the trailer, but lord help us all if Renton is talking about iPhones. Black Mirror did it first, and again-and-again, and saying Social Media Is Bad is a cheap, basic way to reflect on society.

The first speech, for example, hit home because of the specifics. Low cholesterol, dental insurance, fixed-interest mortgage repayments – these are all scathing, intricate digs at our lives. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – that’s like saying, “Choose talking to people” and “Choose taking photos.” It isn’t scathing. It’s superficial. 

This could, of course, just be a problem with the trailer. The entire movie might be a masterpiece like the first, and this criticism might become redundant. To figure that out, there's only one thing to do. Choose to see the film. 

(And then tweet about it). 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution