In Haunt

The Political History of Smack and Crack is a piece of theatre not only striking attention in its title, but through the urgent themes within; revisiting the Moss Side riots of 1981, the heroin epidemic at the height of Thatcherism… and it’s a story of love too. Following sold-out runs at Mustard Tree Manchester and The Edinburgh Fringe, it is now coming to HOME on 27th and 28th January 2020.

A gripping and thought-provoking script gives the play punch; writer Ed Edwards using his own experiences of jail and rehab, as well as insight from Eve Steele – who grew up in Manchester, facing similar encounters with addiction and recovery. Through their own turbulent pasts they have strived to create something positive and insightful, now also running the theatre company Most Wanted together. The Political History of Smack and Crack marks one of their most daring, and direct, pieces so far.

By Michael Mannion

Follow the journey of two lovers (Mandy and Neil) from the turbulence of the 1981 Moss Side riots, to almost 40 years later becoming recovering addicts on those very same streets. 1981 marks the year that riots took place in several British cities after all, crying out against what many considered to be the government’s inadequacy in approaching urban deprivation, the growing issue of unemployment (with levels some of the worst since the 1930s), recession and the hard-handedness of the police. Drugs were rife on the streets, especially ‘smack’ and in its wake, ‘crack’– enchanting the vulnerable and disillusioned, people in increasingly difficult situations. 

Directed by Cressida Brown, honesty is a striking quality of this production, reflective of real-life encounters, addiction and how the road to recovery certainly isn’t a smooth course: a journey that deserves its own attention. Time to face the difficult truth. A two-time Offies nominee and Winner of Summerhall’s Lustrum Award, The Political History of Smack and Crack bristles with humour as well as hard-hitting content.

The play plunges into a powerful account of drug availability in the 1980s, what became known as the ‘heroin epidemic’ and the dark spiral of addiction. Cruel cycles of dependency and recovery, money and debt haunt the characters, drive their hunger. It also sheds a light on the inadequacy of state services to help addicts at the time – forming a resonant rallying cry for recognition and proper support. Yet in a current age of political uncertainty and continuing cuts, the question of what this means for addiction services now makes this play all-the-more urgent.

According to the writer behind it, Ed Edwards:

“Most plays I’ve seen about heroin show the horrors and the degradation of the experience from the personal perspective as if hard drugs have just fallen from the sky. We see some smackhead heading for the bottom and then getting better - again as if by magic. I wanted to show two things differently. Firstly, that the smack - and in its wake crack - didn’t appear from nowhere: they appeared at a particular time for a particular reason and that reason is political. Secondly, I wanted to deal with addicts in recovery - mainly because most of the addicts I know are in recovery -and I wanted to show the madness that goes along with stopping using drugs. I also wanted to depict a fucked-up relationship because this is the only type of relationship I know. I want to make people laugh and make people cry.”

The Political History of Smack and Crack questions people’s prejudices about addiction in an unabashed way – wildly entertaining as well as emotive. For its 2020 tour, the play is again partnering up with Mustard Tree, the Manchester charity working since 1994 to help local people facing issues of homelessness, poverty and dependency. The partnership includes delivering a national art project, involving 6 other charities from across the country. The aim of this will be to create a new artwork made up of service users' creative responses to the play collected through facilitated workshops. A crowdfunding campaign has also been set up to support this project, which will significantly help in allowing these workshops to reach their full potential. (Pictured below: Neil Bell who previously played the role of Neil in the production, and Eve Steele as Mandy - credit: The Other Richard)

By The Other Richard After all, The Political History of Smack and Crack is a piece with impact – and the ability to deeply connect. This was see when the play ran for an impressive 13 nights at the Mustard Tree Charity back in 2018; the performances resonating with many of the audience members who were service users themselves and could see their experiences being shown through theatre in an accessible way. A significant amount of community engagement – including working with service users and people in recovery – came as result of the play showing.

We also spoke to Eve Steele to find out more:

Why is revisiting the Moss Side Riots still so relevant today?

“I think it’s not exactly “re-visiting the riots” , more telling the truth about the past that is relevant – and I know it sounds like a cliché but you can’t deal with the present unless you understand the past. As the title of the play suggests, the importance of the story is the history of smack and crack and the politics of that, and the riots are in a way incidental. The play suggests that the drug epidemic that swept Britain in the 1980s originated at the crisis point for Thatcherism and the epicentre of that on the mainland was the riots. That is why we are revisiting the riots. It coincides with the start of the drug epidemic and we are suggesting it is more than a coincidence that a crisis occurred and a blind eye was turned to the international hard drug trade and domestic consequences of that – for the same reason. And that reason was to prevent the spread of world-wide rebellion. We hope that the picture of the past presented will have the effect of revealing those that claim to be the respectable guardians of law and order at home for what they really are. Like in that scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula when Dracula’s victim is sprawled on the bed at the feet of prince of darkness, seeing him as a handsome hero, then another character enters and he is suddenly seen for what he really is: a Credit Madison Clarepile of rats that collapse and scuttle for the door.” 

The play also focuses on addiction recovery – in all its highs and lows. Do you think, in the arts especially, that ‘recovery’ is too often depicted in a particular way – and is this play somewhat a response to that?

“Not so much a response to the depiction of recovery in other plays etc., as an honest portrayal of it drawn from personal experience. The writer is in recovery and has sat in NA meetings for twenty years listening to incredible stories of debauchery and degradation that often become their opposite when people discover 12 step fellowships. At the same time, even when clean and sober the abyss never seems that far away. These are stories that feel like they need to be told, especially when our society is so determined to blame individuals for the problems caused by politics. We believe that if people like those we see sat in meetings can become the heroes they often do, it’s proof that they are not the main perps. Another reason to why it’s the POLITICAL history of smack and crack.”

Do you think there is something we can all gain from learning about the recovery process – whether we are users, addicts, or neither?

“We hope the stories of the play throw a light on the personal as well as the political. Our consumer society must put pressure on individuals to consume more and more, or else the whole system will collapse. This pressure is not just felt by those caught up in addiction. Everyone is feeling compelled to do and be more while getting less and less back of substance. The resulting emptiness is a great spur to addiction and dereliction of the self. Plenty of ordinary people will feel for Neil and Mandy as they replace the raging desire for a fix for the raging desire to fix on another person. They may also relate to the genuine love that lurks under the surface of our characters’ desperate craving!”

This not just a lesson in the hard reality of addiction and what can be done to support it, but a powerful piece of theatre that considers both urban past and present – brimming with hope for greater understanding and empathy in the future. Tickets are available now.

By Emily Oldfield 

Images: Photograph 1 - credit: Michael Mannion. Photograph 2 - credit: The Other Richard. Poster image - credit: Madison Clare.

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