England and Son
HOME, Manchester and Tin Cat Entertainment
Arcola Theatre, London
During the roaring days of the British Empire, Marx wrote that “the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”
Ed Edwards’s remarkable play The Political History of Smack and Crack depicted the way this played out in 1980s Britain, taking us from the drug casualties of inner city desperation during the cruel years of Thatcher’s government to their connection with the corrupt UK adventures across the globe.
England and Son focuses on the continuing violent legacy of an Empire built on pillage across the world. We are told that “the UK killed six million people... after World War Two” while it was busy stealing their wealth.
The show consists of two sections. The first short ,untitled piece is derived from the storytelling work of Mark Thomas and Ed in the Ancoats district of Manchester with people recovering from drug addiction.
It’s a light, amusing entry into the evening that feels a lot like Mark’s stand-up comedy shows with brief inserted anecdotes of those he and Ed worked with. It includes the story of someone smoking a spliff upstairs on a bus who gets clapped by other passengers when he is getting off, and Hazel’s account of searching for her father following a DNA test.
Mark’s superb comic timing and the very effective way he conjures up particular accents and mannerisms engagingly bring an array of characters to life.
The second section of the show, entitled England and Son, is an intense, unsettling account from the son’s point of view of a childhood distorted by a father suffering PTSD from his soldiering in Malaysia under British rule.
It opens with the drug-addled son curled up in a ball of horror as he tries to understand what has just happened to him and his friend Paul. We return to that scene at the end of the play. But before that, we learn about his troubled relationship with a father he looked up to, despite the man’s abusive and, at times, terrifying behaviour towards him and his mother.
His dad wanted to build something that mattered, but as he concedes to his son while they are reclaiming bits legally and otherwise from various objects to repair cars, “England used to build things... now we just knock everything down.”
Both would spend time in prison. We hear that that was partly because “our stealing wasn't the legalised kind,” such as the British plunder, from other countries, of rubies, chromium and bauxite.
The source of the father's disturbance is mostly not spoken about, but courtesy of perhaps alcohol or some other substance, the son does hear about the time in Malaya when Captain Nigel Stanton Cleese orders his father and other soldiers to open fire on peaceful protesters.
On another occasion, he sees a picture of a man holding two severed heads.
Although there are people such as the social worker, Martha, who take a kindly interest in him and even get him a job working in a boat house, the way he feels about such kindness is tainted by his personal history and what he perceives as the connections it has to a British history that has damaged his father.
Although the performance can feel like a slightly unshaded expression of rage, in a very short sixty minutes, this ambitious show illustrates the way the tragedy of an individual working-class family is part of the continuing horrors inflicted by the powerful in this country as they accumulated the wealth of the world.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna