The Political History of Smack and Crack, presented at Paines Plough’s Roundabout, follows the love story of Mandy and Neil. Both are Manchester born and bred, and the play is as much a love song to the city as it is a love story between two people. Ed Edwards roots around inside his characters to uncover and divulge the history of substance abuse, specifically heroin, on the streets of England.
The history of Manchester jumps off its axis
Ed Edwards’ play focuses on the lives of two white working class addicts in Manchester’s present day. They are suffering from the after effects of the Thatcher years, a government that doesn’t care about them, and a system that plays against them. Eve Steele and Neil Bell weave their characters in between presenting facts about events like the Moss Side Riot of 1981 and the discovery of heroin in America. The show focuses on those people who become statistics, and how their lives play out in the aftermath. Cressida Brown directs the show to have an ease and humour that allows the two actors to play off each other well. The space is divided and divided again, Kate Sagovsky making sure the actors are circling each other constantly, never getting a moment to rest. The stage feels alive, even when one of the characters is dead.
Margaret Thatcher, according to Edwards, provided the means for heroin to be supplied and dealt in the UK. It was the Moss Side riots that acted as the catalyst for this influx of drugs into Britain. As Mandy and Neil explain, before 1981 there were 3,000 heroin addicts in the UK almost all of whom were middle class, and today there are nearly 330,000 – most of whom are working class. What Edwards does so well is a careful deconstruction of a system from the ground up. We are shown how the rash decisions made by governments to suppress long term problems with short term solutions, leads to the drugs crises that face so many people today.
The history of England jumps off its axis
Edwards talks about the Manchester his characters inhabit as a city of ghosts. The police were told to not bust the biggest heroin dealers, and so the problem escalated for the people, but lessened for the government and their services. Police were arresting on petty crime and many of the people involved in the riots became addicts. This play is at its best when it is exposing voices and revealing the consequences of an uncaring government.
However, it seems there is something vital missing. For a piece of theatre that is so rooted in its history and in understanding the facts of an institutional failure, there is a disregard for the heart of the issue. The riots in 1981 were sparked by police violence and racial profiling. The rioting followed a number of racially motivated attacks as well as institutional racism, culminating in police neglect and unwarranted violence. This racial tension lies at the heart of the heroin epidemic, and yet there are just one or two mentions of that violence in Edwards’ script.
Voices have to be heard, and Edwards writes those voices well, but it sits uncomfortably when those voices don’t leave room for the root of the issue. Neil and Mandy say that it takes 90 seconds for the brain to die after the heart stops beating; that is the amount of time they give themselves to talk through all the politics. It doesn’t seem enough. It seems the play is trying to help though; the charities and theatres supporting this show are trying to do something tangible to help – on the back of our free sheet are multiple ways to help with homelessness and addiction. Yet, there is a duty to tell the whole story, and at least acknowledge where the riots came from, and the ways in which that violence still permeates today.
The Political History of Smack and Crack is on at Summerhall Roundabout until 26th August 2018. Click here for more details.