Wednesday 12 February 2020

Theatre Review: The Political History of Smack and Crack at Weston Studio, Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

The Political History of Smack and Crack traces the present-day glut of hard drugs awash on the streets of Manchester and other British cities back to an explosion of availability in 1980s Thatcherite Britain, arguing its root cause was a combination of Tory foreign policy and the desire to subdue the riots catching light in urban working-class districts across the land.

If that sounds like a treatise of abstract polemic then, in fact, it’s anything but: this urgent and energetic 80-minute two-hander—winner in Edinburgh 2018 of Summerhall’s Lustrum Award—threads this history through a deeply personal love story of addiction, recovery and the struggle to get clean of drugs, drawn from writer Ed Edwards’s own personal experiences.

Mandy and Neil are childhood friends and lifelong addicts, born and bred to deprivation and abuse in Manchester’s Moss Side. Between them, they narrate the story of their lives, fluidly weaving past with present in an ongoing cycle of dependency and rehabilitation, where shoplifting, prostitution and robbing from chemists alternate with sessions at Narcotics Anonymous and the support of friends.

It’s gritty and often tough to watch but also endearingly warm and funny, made so by riveting performances from Eve Steele, sure-footedly reprising her role as Mandy from the show’s previous runs, and newcomer William Fox taking over from Neil Bell in the role of Neil. The two break out of their narration to characterise other players in the story: instantly we are with Irish Tony watching a policeman being attacked in the riots, Mandy’s mother with a broken arm walking home from A&E to save the fiver a doctor gave her for a taxi, or Martin offering a spare room and lashings of unheeded advice. Nimbly switching back into the story, they are unapologetic but vulnerable, caught in a purgatory between life and death with confusion and self-loathing pock-marking their back-and-forth bravado and debate.

On the Weston Studio’s unadorned stage, Cressida Brown’s direction focuses intensely on the actors, their fleet physicality filling the space but supporting rather than overwhelming the storytelling. Similarly, Richard Williamson's lighting and Jon McLeod’s sound design are unobtrusive in the main, used with sparing intensity to highlight moments of particular tension.

Such is the pull of this absorbing and affecting tale of mismatched love and survival even after death that the political elements, though cleverly spliced into the action, can occasionally feel intrusive. But the play’s message is a shocking and hard-hitting one, leading you to question and want to find out more, ultimately inseparable from the characters whose lives it touches.

Reviewed on 22 January 2020 | Images: The Other Richard

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