The Political History of Smack and Crack @ HOME
Winner of Summerhall’s Lustrum Award 2018, and following a sell-out run at Push Festival 2018, ‘The Political History of Smack and Crack’ returned to HOME on January 27th and 28th as part of its 2020 UK tour.
The play’s return to the Manchester theatre marks a symbolic homecoming to the place which inspired its very conception, and which serves as the setting for the story itself. Mandy – played by Eva Steele – and Neil, played by William Fox, take the audience through their troubled journey of addiction, co-dependency and political unrest, charting the rise of the heroin epidemic in Manchester since 1981. It’s a date which marks the eruption of the riots across the UK, and – crucially – in Manchester’s Moss Side, which is where Mandy and Neil first cross paths.
This collision of such a huge socio-political event with the lives of Mandy and Neil, just children at the time, acts as a vessel through which the play operates. It’s both poignantly private and painfully public, ensuring that its message is heard loud and clear by the audience without deviating into a lecture on politics. This is a fine line in political theatre, and there were moments during the performance where I felt as though it risked crossing that line. Steele and Fox stepping out of character throughout to draw connections between heroin addiction and a more global context of rebellion and revolution is a little over-egged. It would have perhaps been more powerful to put more trust in the audience to make those connections themselves, particularly because the artistic direction and stylistic focus of the play is so strong that this would have been achieved regardless.
Nothing demonstrates this strength more than how effortlessly the world of the play is brought to life on an empty stage, with neither a backdrop nor any props. Subtle changes in lighting and an imaginative use of sound effects conjure up an image of Manchester’s Market Street in the rain, where the audience watch the turbulent relationship between Mandy and Neil unfold. Steele and Fox are gripping in their portrayal of the harrowing cycle of addiction; each character takes it in turns to try and save the other but ends up dragging themselves down as a result. This is when the play is at its best; tackling the roots of addiction amongst the vulnerable working-class through its exploration of Mandy and Neil’s co-dependency, on each other and on the drugs.
It’s a credit to Steele and Fox’s acting abilities that they so seamlessly take on multiple roles within the narrative without letting Mandy and Neil’s characters get lost within it. It’s also a testament to playwright Ed Edwards’ writing, which tackles such a multitude of complex issues in a performance which is just over an hour long. Not only does his work pose important questions about the way in which political authorities tackle political unrest amongst the working classes, but it manages to do so with humour and wit injected throughout.
There’s a warm, self-deprecative tone to the dialogue between Mandy and Neil which sets ‘The Political History of Smack and Crack’ apart from other works attempting to tackle similar socio-political issues. The characters don’t take themselves too seriously, inviting the audience to laugh with them at the tragedy of the events that befall them. Mandy’s inability to stop herself from urinating and Neil’s close encounters with death are not funny when regarded from an outsider’s perspective, but, when invited to view the events from within, the result is a spectacularly poignant experience, rife with humour, anger and authenticity.
‘The Political History of Smack and Crack’ continues its UK tour until February 20th 2020.