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Edinburgh Theater Review: Irvine Welsh’s ‘Performers’

With:
Perry Benson, George Russo, Lewis Kirk, Maya Gerber.

In a theater festival with 3,398 shows, it can be hard to get your voice heard. But making his presence felt more than most on this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe is Irvine Welsh, whose name is attached to no fewer than three productions. As well as a revival of “Trainspotting Live,” an immersive adaptation of his debut novel, there is the premiere of “Creatives,” a musical originally staged by Chicago Theater Workshop, and “Performers,” a 1960s gangland comedy co-written by Dean Cavanagh. Sadly, for all its promise, “Performers” does not yet bear comparison with the novel that made Welsh’s name.

There is, however, a funny idea at the heart of the show. When film director Donald Cammell and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg began work on “Performance,” the cult 1970 classic starring James Fox, Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg, they brought on board dialogue coach David Litvinoff. He was a maverick figure whose connections to the gangland underworld of 1960s London extended as far as the notorious mobsters the Kray Twins. Cammell called on Litvinoff to help give authenticity to this movie about a sadistic East London gangster and a bisexual former rock star. Litvinoff duly drew on his contacts to persuade genuine criminals to audition for supporting roles.

What Welsh and Cavanagh identify is that strange cultural moment when bohemian intelligentsia flirted with the world of organized crime. “Performers” is set in Cammell’s office where two thugs, Perry Benson’s avuncular Alfred and George Russo’s skittish Bert, have turned up for a meeting only to find the director has been detained by Mick Jagger. While they wait, they are attended on by Alfred’s niece and office secretary Flo (a spirited Maya Gerber), before being screen-tested by the effete Crispin (a freewheeling Lewis Kirk) who has questionable intentions.

The play sets the gangsters, with their strict code of conduct, designer shoes and three-piece suits, against the bohemians represented by Crispin, with his Afghan waistcoat, Paisley-pattern shirt and fascination with the homoeroticism of painter Francis Bacon. Despite a life of violence and pilfering, it is the criminals who appear conservative next to the new generation of swinging 1960s moviemakers. Alf and Bert look at the free-loving lifestyle of the creative community with a mixture of envy and disgust, recognizing the sexual impulse at the same time as being suspicious of the hippy lack of discipline.

The playwrights do a good job at constructing a pastiche ’60s underworld, peppering the conversation with Cockney rhyming slang and references to characters with names such as “French Claude,” a Soho pornographer. The design by Russell De Rozario (set) and Nat Turner (costume) also pays careful attention to period detail, from Flo’s Twiggy-style eyelashes and white plastic boots to the glass milk bottle served with a pot of tea. It gives “Performers” the sense of being rooted in a real time and place.

What emerges is a modestly amusing near-farce during which Alf is convinced to perform naked, leading to attempts at blackmail and counter-blackmail. Although it works better than “Creatives,” a confused musical about ambition and authenticity among a group of student songwriters, it is more of an extended sketch than a fully realized play. There is potential here to look in depth at the clash in values and the allure of the ’60s gangster at a pivotal cultural moment, and it’d be good to see Welsh and Cavanagh returning to this material. But for now, by focusing on the bit-part players rather than the leading lights, “Performers” remains as breezily superficial as a sitcom.

Edinburgh Theater Review: Irvine Welsh's 'Performers'

Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh; 350 Seats; £15 ($20) top. Opened Aug. 3, 2017; reviewed Aug. 18, 2017. Running time: 1 HOUR.

Production: A Performers Ltd. presentation of a play in one act written by Irvine Welsh and Dean Cavanagh.

Creative: Directed by Nick Moran. Score, Chad Hobson; set design, Russell De Rozario; costume design, Nat Turner.

Cast: Perry Benson, George Russo, Lewis Kirk, Maya Gerber.

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