Review: The Political History of Smack and Crack (Summerhall, Edinburgh Fringe)

Ed Edwards’ play looks at the story of two addicts in Manchester

The Political History of Smack and Crack
The Political History of Smack and Crack
(© The Other Richard)

While Ed Edwards' play for Paines Plough isn't exactly a thorough and extensive history of the origins of the titular opiates, it does manage deftly and persuasively to put the story of their rise in popularity in this country into perspective. Yes there are a few facts about Britain's murky connection with the drug trades of China and Afghanistan thrown into this play, but its focus is on humans, rather than statistics. Which obviously makes for better theatre.

So don't be put off by the show's thesis-sounding title. It's the story of Mandy and Neil, both the sort of junky drug addicts that most people will have seen on the streets of pretty much any city in this country. Looking gnarled and withered, ill and dirty, their lives rotate around where they can get their next fix from. The two met as kids in Moss Side in Manchester and for years they spent their lives going round together causing a ruckus, stealing and scoring. While the beginnings of their drug experiences are just an extension of the trouble they've been causing as neglected teens, soon getting high takes over.

This doesn't result in a couple of months of deterioration and then a nasty death. Neil and Mandy are in this for the long-haul. Their story is about two lifetimes of abuse in different forms. Even when they rob a chemist, inject something unknown into their arms and spend an hour fitting on the floor, it isn't enough to stop them.

It's Neil, recently revived after he technically dies from an overdose (the third time that's happened) who begins to look at things a little from the outside in, questioning quite how heroin became so easy to find in this country. The piece offers a few possible answers, delivered in short interludes where Eve Steele and Neil Bell break out of their characters – while sort of also remaining in them too – to tell us about what was happening in the '80s right up to the point where the illicit drugs market was flooded with heroin. It's politics – Margaret Thatcher, wars, trade routes and riots. In the early '80s heroin was the drug of choice for around three to four thousand and those people were the upper classes. A few years later and heroin addiction is a working class epidemic.

Edwards' points are compelling and shocking, but what's most affecting is Neil and Mandy's story. Even if you've never come near the sort of world they inhabit, it's not hard to understand their journey, or how easy it could be to get to where they each are.

The cyclical nature of addiction is also subtly woven into the fabric of the piece, as Edwards demonstrates how each of them get clean and then fall off the wagon time and again. The saddest thing about it is that in another world, they should be lovers. The final scene is an awful demonstration of just how completely addiction can crush a human being.

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