The Political History of Smack and Crack @ Tron Theatre, Glasgow
The story of two long-term addicts is fused with an expose of government collusion in Ed Edwards' earnest debut play
Mandy and Neil are long-term friends. They are also long-term heroin addicts. This production follows the pair as they negotiate the perils and pitfalls of addiction; spiralling through their home city of Manchester, attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, succumbing to drugs again, and circling each other in an ongoing cycle of dependency, sobriety and love.
Ed Edwards based the script partly on his own experiences with addiction in the early 1990s. It's therefore not surprising that this play touches on many sides of addiction that other, perhaps less authentic portrayals leave out. The Political History of Smack and Crack is at its best when its depicting the mundanity of sobriety, the constant threat of relapse and the complex, particular danger posed by two recovering addicts falling in love.
It also incudes strong, docu-theatre segments whereby actors Eve Steele and William Fox break away from Mandy and Neil's story to relay the history of hard drug use in England's working-class towns. Heroin couldn't be found on the streets of Manchester before the early eighties, they tell us. Thatcher and her regime turned a blind eye to the rise of the drug's importation: it kept the masses quiet. Steele and Fox powerfully recount the riots that swept across the UK in 1981, from Mandy and Neil's perspective as working-class, Mancunian children. Of course the government didn't do anything to stem the drug use that became rampant in Britain's most deprived communities. How could the poor protest when they were nodding out?
It's a fascinating account with a powerful and angry political message, and it's fused almost effortlessly with the human story between the two protagonists at the heart of the play. Cressida Brown's stage direction is fluid and smooth, and the transitions between the historical accounts and Mandy and Neil's scenes never feel awkward or clumsy.
There are some heartbreakingly moving moments, such as when we see Mandy, shop-lifting to fill the void, desperately turn to the comfort of her scented shower gels to stave off the craving for heroin. The ending, too, is very poignant. Edwards has created a play that realistically shows how desperately hard staying clean can be, but isn't devoid of hope.
It's not flawless. The character of Neil feels too one-dimensional, a stereotypically cheerful bloke whose vulnerabilities don't feel fully realized. Consequently, a revelation about his character at the end of play isn't as effective as it could be. It takes a while to warm up to Edwards' choice to have Steele and Fox describing their characters' actions in the third person. Yes, it's an easy device that allows the actors to slip in and out of character, but it also feels jarring to be constantly told how characters are thinking and feeling.
Overall, though, The Political History of Smack and Crack is a powerful show which demonstrates the resilience of human beings and bristles with a necessary rage.