The Political History of Smack and Crack
Most Wanted and Offstage Theatre, W14 Productions and Alastair Michael
Mustard Tree, Ancoats
Mustard Tree is a Manchester charity helping those in need learn new skills, find work and accommodation and provide the resources to build a home. It is also where Ed Edwards’s The Political History of Smack and Crack began life in rehearsal. Now, after being staged in Edinburgh and London, the play returns to Mustard Tree as part of The International Arts and Homelessness Summit and Festival.
The play does as the title promises and gives a vivid summary of the circumstances that resulted in heroin becoming widely available to working class addicts in the 1980s after being restricted to rock stars and the more prosperous. Western governments wishing to support rebel activists in Afghanistan turned a blind eye to the fact that their income came largely from heroin and concentrated on covering up, rather than preventing, the mass exportation of the drug into the UK.
At heart, however, The Political History of Smack and Crack is a love story albeit one chronicling a relationship apparently doomed from the start. Mandy (Eve Steele) and Neil (Neil Bell) share an addiction to drugs and their relationship is shaped by the need to feed their habit. There is a hint of Trainspotting in the comedic descriptions of their cack-handed attempts at larceny. But Neil is in love with Mandy who, after childhood abuse, is incapable of returning the affection which puts the relationship under strain especially as Mandy is willing to sleep around in return for drugs.
Although Neil and Mandy boast of their exploits, The Political History of Smack and Crack does not glamorise drug addiction. The petty selfishness of drug addicts is made starkly clear when Neil, fearing he has overdosed, talks Mandy into doing the same to avoid dying alone. The question raised by the play is not why people take drugs but rather, bearing in mind the circumstances of Mandy and Neil, why they would not. The couple are in such a hopeless, dead-end situation they perceive the riots that ripped through the UK in 1981 not as anarchy but rather a rare chance for them to defy the authorities and show they are in control of their housing estates. It is a bleak, self-hating attitude and can be seen as a foreshadowing of the growth of populism and the alienation of the electorate.
Cressida Brown directs a stripped-down production without set or props. Brown concentrates, therefore, on establishing an intense physical staging with the cast pacing the performance space like tigers marking their territory. It is an approach that works exceptionally well, particularly with Neil Bell exulting as he recalls the aftermath of the riots, leading to the conclusion that props might actually have been a distraction.
Eve Steele and Neil Bell act as narrators for the play and behave like an old married couple, sharing anecdotes with the audience and taking turns to drag the other to rehabilitation meetings. The show is very funny, even if the humour is not always comfortable, but does not disguise the squalor in which the characters exist. Neil Bell has a strong physical presence but shows how drugs have wrecked the character’s health to the point where standing upright is an issue.
Although Mandy may act as the cocky shoplifter and delight in recalling her narrow escapes, the dominant emotion from both actors is a growing sense of shame. The cast constantly pause and shy away from recollections of how their lives have become a spiral of decline to the extent that the characters become embarrassed when encountering each other.
With jet-black humour, stark social comment and excellent performances, the return of The Political History of Smack and Crack to Manchester is very welcome.