Tam Dean Burn is a remarkable actor, a dynamo who commits himself body and soul to a part. It's just that he's made some dodgy decisions about accepting roles in the first place, and often those decisions involve Irvine Welsh. Welsh's only original play (thank God) You'll Have Had Your Hole was a ludicrous farrago, condemned not because it shocked us tender flowers of reviewers but just because it was a rubbish play. Filth, adapted as a solo performance from Welsh's novel and directed by Harry Gibson (who gave the world the stage version of Trainspotting), is nowhere near as awful, but it is long, untidy and derivative. Where it is predictable, it is extremely so, and where it is unpredictable, this is because a turn of events simply has no reason at all except Welsh's whim.
Detective Sergeant Bruce Robinson is basically Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant transplanted to Edinburgh, conducting a murder investigation while also drinking himself repeatedly into a stupor, making obscene phone calls and extracting oral favours from schoolgirls in return for not arresting them. But where Harvey Keitel's character in Ferrara's film had an inner moral and religious dilemma, Welsh gets by with a dollop of childhood guilt and hereditary psychopathy ladled on in the closing minutes. Even what is at first sight the original twist – a tapeworm inside Robinson's guts, which gives us a few monologues of its own – was originally bestowed on a fictional detective by novelist Jerome Charyn in his Isaac Quartet. Yes, in some ways Robinson is almost as much a victim as he is a villain, but this in itself doesn't actually make him any more interesting.
It is up to Burn to keep us hooked, and he does it damned well. He alternately prowls and flings himself around the Bush's compact stage, using his full vocal range from smooth, speedy patter to inarticulate howling and sobbing. He performs dressed, undressed (and all points between) and even cross-dressed. But for all Burn's brio and (what may be overlooked) intelligence in performance, and despite also Gibson's flair in adaptation, it is these elements rather than Welsh's writing which compel us. There is little point in watching a first-rate stage version if it also makes you wonder why anyone thought it worth taking off the page in the first place. Filth certainly would not work without Burn (or an actor similarly committed, of which there are precious few); unfortunately, it does not really work with him either.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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