The Political History of Smack and Crack

Fri 3rd – Sun 26th August 2018

reviews

Lottie Hayton

at 08:37 on 16th Aug 2018

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Ed Edwards’s piece 'The Political History of Smack and Crack' is, from the moment the eerie blue and white lights spun around the edge of the stage, a riveting take on the history of heroin in Manchester from the late 1980s.

It tells the story of Mandy and Neil, two addicts from Manchester caught up in the events of the July 1981 riots and the wider tragedy of drug addiction which was exacerbated by political decisions made that year. Although Edwards puts forward and maintains a clear anti-Tory political agenda, he gives this rhetoric a new power by focusing chiefly on the people, rather than the institutions involved. Phenomenal acting from Neil Bell and Eve Steele make for seamless transitions across the jumps in time and place. The audience are taken backwards and forwards chronologically with the cast and never lost along the way, while references to streets and place names around Manchester draw you into this world.

Moments of unexpected wit, for example during the description of Mandy on one of her common shoplifting expeditions doing “a little wee” out of fear, create clever moments of irony. These kept the audience riveted with what could otherwise be a wholly dark and tragic piece.

Even the interlude where Mandy and Neil give the ‘political’ explanation of events is lightened by Neil’s comment after the narration: “Bloody hell, that was longer than 90 seconds wasn’t it!”

The staging of the play in Summerhall’s The Paines Plough Roundabout venue allows the piece to make full use of circulating lighting to give the two addicts even more centrality in the story. Despite otherwise basic costume and complete lack of props, the audience’s encirclement of the characters makes it impossible to turn away from this engaging piece. Watching the reaction of other members of the audience only encourages one’s own engagement with the play.

The multi-faceted characterisation, for example Mandy’s back story of abuse and ongoing prostitution, make for a convincing portrayal of the very human lives behind the politics. This piece wordlessly demonstrates the central message: that behind political decisions and grand events, there are lives being played out which are vulnerable to the mercy of those in power. Audiences will be left reeling by this powerful drama.

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Alannah Taylor

at 12:59 on 17th Aug 2018

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‘The Political History of Smack and Crack’ is a fast-paced, gritty two part narrative drama following the lives of two Mancunian addicts, with a particular focus on their recovery. Cressida Brown’s production is minimal, without props or set, and incredibly vivid. Neil Bell (Neil) and Eve Steele (Mandy) portray a pair of hilarious, likeable lifelong friends and love interests, whose paths criss cross many times through the course of their lives.

The beauty of this piece is that the characters are so wonderfully relatable and accessible. Even to audiences who may never have known people in Neil’s or Mandy’s situation, or held prejudices about addiction and life on the streets, they are so personable as to feel immediately close, in spite of all their eccentric misdemeanours.

Bell and Steele have incredible chemistry, bouncing off of one another with beautiful ease. Despite the show’s weighty title, the real centrepiece of the story is not the political backdrop, but rather this tender, fatally flawed coupling. The aching vulnerability their relationship brings out of both of them, hardened to life though they are, moved many in the audience to tears. The political contexts of the Thatcher era, the dawn of the age of heroin in the UK and the 1981 Moss Side riots are all primarily explored in terms of their roles in shaping the lives of the main characters. It is a highly effective choice to have everything delivered in the third person. This is very wittily used in places, to allow the characters to charmingly disparage one another, or speak with an extra dimension of self awareness. This also allows the parts to be blended seamlessly with the political backdrop, showing us the almost inseparable nature of the individual and the environment for “people with nothing to lose.”

When Mandy first shoots up heroin, she proclaims “this is me now.” It completes her, filling in some long missing part of herself. Her posture and the amplified lights on her body create a moment of religious significance. Even as outsiders, that moment makes you feel all of the reasons why someone might become a user, as if those reasons were your own.

Their journeys through recovery are perilous and full of setbacks, and what makes this more tragic is that they are often at opposite points along this loop, and consequently unable to connect. But despite all the hardship, the ups and downs are littered with moments of poignance, hilarity and charm. It is all very well to showcase the harrowing damages of addiction on a person and those who care for them, but this show is not about that. It is about the human faces: the endearing Northern mischief of two romantics who have found themselves beaten down by life for following the paths before them. I only hope that the humour, compassion and understanding conveyed in ‘The Political History of Smack and Crack’ go on a long way, and reach many more people.

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