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FringeReview UK 2018

The Political History of Smack and Crack

Soho Theatre and Most Wanted Productions

Genre: Contemporary, New Writing, Political, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Soho Theatre Upstairs, 21 Dean Street London


Low Down

Directed by Cressida Brown for Most Wanted Productions, lit by Richard Williamson with Jon McLeod’s sound and composition and Kate Sagovsky’s circling movement direction, subfusc costumes are by Esteniah Williams. Produced by Annabel Williamson for W14 Productions. Till September 22nd.


There’s a 28 page history attached to the end of the text. It’s the best condensed history of the subject I’ve read. But don’t let that distract from the heltering shot-up story of Ed Edwards’ personal witness where at 2am 8th July 1981 Manchester and England jump off their axes, and cities burn.


Shortlisted for a 503 Theatre award, The Political History of Smack and Crack makes the political personal then political again. Most Wanted Productions arrives at Soho Upstairs for a two-and-a-half week run before touring. Catch it here.


This is in part the story of Neil and Mandy, an autobiographical thread of thirty-odd years through the fired cars and smashed shop-fronts of the 1981 riots in Liverpool, where a government took fright as nine other cities burned too. Directed by Cressida Brown, Eve Steele, a co-founder of Most Wanted, and Neil Bell enact a simple storytelling narrative jumping in and out of scene and confiding in the tight Upstairs space. In just one hour it’s riveting on its own. The politics lights another fuse.


There’s nothing but a couple of thrown shoes and a surround of audience, liable to find one of the actors sitting cheerfully next to them. On the studio’s black floor, everything’s stripped to the knot of attention these actors bring to a space as naked as a bulb in a tenement. And it’s lit by Richard Williamson with Jon McLeod’s sound and composition and Kate Sagovsky’s circling movement direction; subfusc costumes are by Esteniah Williams. You imagine the shoplifted Russell & Bromley shoes for yourself.


The exhilaration sparked by twelve-year-old Neil’s witnessing sudden eruptions against the police at close-quarters is infectious. Bell’s superb at conveying both the boy’s wonder and the man’s gnarled commentary on the boy. There’s a faux-innocence he strips off with an amused snarl; the scamp is father of the skank on skunk perhaps, but it takes a while to see that.


He’s fixated by Steele’s slinky Mandy, living on her wits and on and off her back when she’s not compulsively shoplifting the same brand of body-wash; till it’s cascading from under her bed. Litanies of compulsion feed into the way both of them discover early on the delights of the danger box in a chemist.


The most telling moment is when having found there’s none of the usual morphine Neil tries something else. Agonized he says it’s wonderful. When Mandy’s agonized and thinks it could’ve killed them, she asks why he told her it was good. ‘I didn’t want to die on my own.’ That simple – devastatingly funny – frankness tells us all we need to know about co-dependence.


The narrative zig-zags through their encounters over the years, Neil hangdog in love, Mandy keeping him at arm’s length so he can remain her one reliable friend. She’s never known falling in love, and Edwards skilfully unwraps, quite late on the witness of an abuse pattern.


The crossover narrative of how Neil ‘dies’ as we find depends on Mandy’s expert knowledge of how to revive him. It’s Mandy who kicks the habit, then Neil completely, but there’s a twist. Both emotionally, and well, it’s political. Before the riots you couldn’t get a single ‘beautiful, brown crystal’ of heroin, but after, the place is flooded. Why?


Edwards skims particular years where Neil is ‘two years on his arse’ from one drug for instance, and strikes off the death toll of friends who seemed robust. He touches on his prison experiences too though they only form a brief strand of narrative and some of it was excised in any case, so our attention is on the way these two collide, and the way they collide as drug narrative.


Steele’s perky gobsworth Mandy is both more cheerfully risk-taking and fragile: her capacity to turn boys she’s never met to nobble a pursuing store detective is a tour-de-farce of streetwise. She’s more vulnerable in other, invisible ways though, initially more robust than the hapless Neil. In one sense this is a love story come too late, or always timed wrong, till the end. Nothing though is sure. The only thing that might save them is becoming conscious of what’s happened to them.


At a ninety-second juncture where Neil’s life hangs in the balance, Edwards speaks out of Neil and for him, declaring the narrative would be beyond Neil, but here’s the politics and it all started that night on 8th July 1981.


This mainlines into U.S. and British controlling the drugs flow, when as Edwards now makes clear Home Secretary William Whitelaw drafted in Northern Ireland’s chief of police and army commander. There was more danger at home than in Belfast, and it had to be stopped. The way it was has had catastrophic results – for the people. But the government succeeded in its terms, as the West have done every time the left threaten insurgency: Vietnam, South America, Afghanistan. Before that night there were two or three thousand heron addicts, mostly middle-class. Within three years there were three hundred thousand, mostly working-class. And fighting each other, not the government, as they still are. When you’ve learned all the facts you might feel joining whatever revolution might begin to put this right.


Edwards – and Bell and Steele – manage to make this at once personable, personal and devastating. Like several shows now this comes attached with post-show announcements and helpline sheets, but unusually it comes with Edwards’ own learned polemic, as noted, and that’s almost worth the price of the volume.


But see it humanized by these fearlessly funny and frantic actors, then pick up the tab and tag. As story there’s chase-tail telling. As theme a needle-raw, soaring arc of love. As moral a keen wit never loses sight of a blood-iron warmth; and in David Eldridge’s phrase ‘the knot of the heart’. As theatre it Catherine-wheels with anger. As an unsentimental education this takes some beating. Don’t miss it.