[Written by Nina Halper (she/her)]
[Image Credits: Ethan Sexton (accessed through Unsplash) with GUM edits]
Content Warning: Contains reference to drug usage and addiction.
I sit in the bar at the Tron Theatre, collecting my thoughts after watching The Political History of Smack and Crack. I watch the middle-class demographic of the people who attended the theatre that night, as they sip their drinks with nonchalance, and I laugh to myself, considering the irony. The play we have just seen looks at the disruption and turmoil of drug usage in the UK. Whilst the consumption of alcohol (whether in moderate or high dosage) among the middle-upper class is looked upon lightly, those from less privileged backgrounds who have drug addictions are cast away and struggle to get help.
The Political History of Smack and Crack, written by Ed Edwards, follows Neil (William Fox) and Mandy (Eve Steele), a Mancunian couple whose lives are centred around the heroin epidemic in the 1980s. Edwards uses inspiration from his own experiences in jail and rehab, bringing an autobiographical stance to the play. Focusing on Neil and Mandy’s relationship, and how drugs bring them both closer and further away from each other, the play explores Thatcherism, the 1980 riots and how politics affected the heroin epidemic.
The intimacy is first highlighted as you walk into the theatre; the audience are set in the round, with only one row of seats on each side of four walls. It brings the audience closer to the actors and the drama and thus induces a communal atmosphere. During the scenes that involve drug addiction support groups, Neil and Mandy join the round, sitting on chairs next to audience members which only enforces the personal and intimate relationship we have with the actors – we are forced to join Neil and Mandy on their journey.
With an hour-long running time and just two actors, the use of frequent movement was employed so that the stage never looked static. Their motion was slick and dynamic; the two actors were together and then apart, with moments of slow motion and use of different heights. This movement seemed busy, but pleasing. The show was on tour from the start of January in cities across the UK, so the movement must have changed from theatre to theatre. The polished movements were impressive, considering that their first performance in this specific space at The Tron was the night before.
There was frequent interplay between characters; whilst the focus was on Neil and Mandy, the actors switched to play other characters in their story. Edwards writes in a style that uses both storytelling and live action, so Steele and Fox are constantly switching between being their characters and telling the story from the third person. Occasionally this does become confusing, and it is hard to know exactly who is speaking. However, this confusion adds to the hazy and complex nature of drug abuse which they are aiming to portray.
Inside the confusion and movement, there were moments of stillness that, for me, were the most powerful moments in the play. Edwards paints Neil as a young boy in the midst of the Manchester riots of 1981. He claims “this is where it all started”, the first glimpse of rebelling and the thrill that it entails. This is where some drug addicts’ stories start; it stems from little kicks like petty theft and escalates until suddenly you are out of control. Neil stands alone in the middle of the stage, circling, with bright lights beaming onto him. He is smiling and seems in control whilst chaos happens around him. Fox plays the young Neil with a charming innocence. This stillness, in contrast to the frequent motion that had been happening before, is beautiful and takes you by surprise. One understands Neil’s sudden need for something, or someone that will love him, whether that’s drugs or his lifelong love, Mandy.
The play reminds us that everyone is human; there is no difference between the privileged theatre goer who sips controllably at their drink and the young boy Neil who finds love in chasing thrills. The chaos from the movement and text reflects that of the time of the heroin epidemic, an atmosphere which continues now in the UK.