The Political History of Smack and Crack is fresh from a successful run at Edinburgh Fringe, this show was compelling and powerful in its return to Mustard Tree as a part of the ‘With One Voice International Homelessness Arts Festival and Summit’. Written by Ed Edwards, this performance is an hour-long education about, you guessed it, the historical development of smack (heroin) and crack [cocaine] in Britain.
Actors Eve Steele (Coronation Street) and Neil Bell (Dead Man’s Shoes; Peterloo) took us the through the intertwining stories of Mandy and Neil. These two people allowed us, as the audience, to experience a whole history of drugs, whilst relating to two very genuine characters who felt like real people. Set in the round, the actors made great use of the space, whether this was interacting at diagonals or creating dynamic shapes that were striking on all sides.
The stories of the drugs and Thatcherism were brought to life. Of particular interest was the paradox of Thatcher supporting opposition groups in Afghanistan and Nicaragua whilst those same groups were making a living from the influx of drugs into the UK. Neil and Mandy frequently remind us of the fact that before 1981 only upper-class people could afford heroin — then everything changed.
The story follows Mandy and Neil’s lives, flashing between 1981 Moss Side and present-day Manchester. We experience their childhood memories of 1981 Manchester, of working-class riots against heightened police forces and of racially prejudiced ‘stop and search’ procedures. Mustard Tree in Ancoats was the perfect venue as the two recounted present day Mandy’s shoplifting exploits, naming the familiar streets and places she ran through to evade the security guards.
Powerful performances from both Steele and Bell were compelling. Direction by Cressida Brown had the two of them delivering Edwards’ words fast-paced, and at times in the style of spoken word poetry. Even more impressive was their ability to synchronise sharp physical movement which, despite being contemporary, worked perfectly to demonstrate the importance and gravity of different movements. Bell was particularly good at changing his posture to show how addiction had degraded Neil over time. Steele had a hilariously realistic ability to take on other characters that were completely believable, particularly other men in the story of Mandy and Neil.
It must be stressed that this performance managed to communicate so many elements and perspectives of addiction from a personal and historical perspective in such a short time. We watched as Mandy and Neil seemed to dance around the idea of a loving relationship, fighting against their attempts to get clean.
If I have one criticism, it was the questionable New York accents at the beginning of the show, however, this was quickly forgotten. It was also impressive that the performance was so striking and dramatic despite the reduced technical abilities of the venue. The whole performance was in full florescent lighting. If anything this enhanced the performance with the focus being entirely on the impeccable acting.
‘The Political History of Smack and Crack’ was an ingenious way to educate its audience about such a destructive force. The performance felt completely truthful, in that it didn’t attempt to sugarcoat how drugs can affect and control people’s lives.