Theatre / Social and political theatre

Preview: The Political History of Smack and Crack, Bristol Old Vic

By steve wright, Thursday Jan 16, 2020

2am, 8th July, 1981, all the major cities of England burn.

The night of the riots. That night should change everything.

Inspired by his own experience in jail and rehab, Ed Edwards’ The Political History of Smack and Crack is an urgent, angry, funny love-song to a lost generation crushed by the heroin epidemic at the height of Thatcherism. Following sold-out runs at Soho Theatre and Edinburgh Festival Fringe, this acclaimed production, produced by Alastair Michael, Offstage Theatre and Most Wanted, and co-commissioned by Soho Theatre, looks in at Bristol Old Vic from January 22-25 at the start of its UK.

Edwards’ shattering portrait lays bare the passage from the 1981 Moss Side riots to survival on the present day streets of Manchester. Two-time Offies nominee and Winner of Summerhall’s Lustrum Award, The Political History of Smack and Crack crackles with rage, humour and authenticity as it candidly sheds light on the road to recovery.

This vital two-hander traces a pair of star-crossed lovers from the epicentre of the mass violence and rioting to masterfully detail the moments that lead them to become recovering addicts on those very same streets nearly forty years later. Here is actress Eve Steele, herself a recovered addict, who plays Mandy.

How would you describe the show to someone who hasn’t seen it?
The Political History of Smack & Crack is a great mix of comedy and grit, both moving and entertaining. It follows two addicts, Mandy (who I play) and Neil, through their lives – from their childhood, through their early use of drugs, to how they are present-day, desperately trying to get clean.

Fundamentally, the play is a love story. What makes this one special?
These aren’t the characters we meet in a typical love story: they are really under-represented, and seeing their pain and vulnerability really ups the stakes with what happens to their relationships. When people are this fragile, a broken heart can be fatal.

Tell us about your character, Mandy.
Mandy is warm-hearted, friendly and incredibly self-destructive. I think many addicts are like extreme versions of human beings, and Mandy fits this description: her emotions are powerful and overwhelming at times, and although she can come across as quite cocky and good fun she has a deep reserve of self-loathing and low self-esteem.

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What was it that initially drew you to the role?
Mandy is a character that Ed Edwards and I developed together over a few years. There have been different incarnations of Mandy in works of mine and ours in the past. I used to be a heroin addict myself but, thankfully, got clean when I was quite young. Mandy is loosely based on an idea of how I might have been if I’d carried on using, mixed in with bits and pieces of people that Ed and I have known.

You were brought up in Moss Side, Manchester. Do you remember anything from the time the play is set?
I was at primary school in 1981, which is when some of the play is set. All I remember from the riots was that I wasn’t allowed to play out – so it was a bit annoying.

They were mysterious – I didn’t understand what riots were. There was a lot of poverty and unemployment at that time, stuff got nicked from the backyard, clothes from the washing line, the house was broken into a lot. I lived in Moss Side again as an adult and by then there was a lot of heroin around.

Ed Edwards’ two-hander traces two lovers in their journey of addiction and recovery, from the 1981 riots to the present day. Pic: The Other Richard

When I was little I remember being really proud when I saw our road mentioned in an article about Moss Side in the Manchester Evening News. I asked my mum if I could take it into school the next day to show everyone and was really grumpy when she wouldn’t let me. The article said: ‘The girls in high heels and tight jeans on Broadfield Road aren’t waiting for a bus.’

In what ways, if any, does your past relationship with addiction affect how you respond to the play?
I think it makes it easy for me to step into the mind of the character. I have many of my own experiences to draw on and sometimes it feels like I am just accessing an existing part of me. It is quite a moving experience and makes me really grateful to have managed to get clean.

Do you think the support offered to drug users has changed or improved since the 1980s?
I’m not sure what was available in the 80s – but there’s a lot more awareness now. I think it’s harder to get a place in a detox than it was when I got clean in one over 20 years ago, and that’s really bad news as getting clean on your own is really tough.

The 1981 riots in Manchester (and elsewhere) provide the backdrop for the play’s early scenes

However, there are a lot more recovering addicts working in drugs services now, and they have a lot of really useful experience. So this kind of lived experience combined with peer mentoring and a lot more 12-step meetings is a really good resource. This is really fortunate as there is definitely not enough money available to tackle addiction, as with most mental health issues, so we just have to hope that the generosity and goodwill of those who have struggled with addiction themselves and come through it can help as many people as possible.

How do you think we can best support those struggling with addiction?
I think if it’s a friend, partner or family member then it is really hard as addiction has a huge impact on people close to the addict, and those people need to find ways to look after themselves and be as non-judgmental and accepting of the addict as possible, whilst protecting themselves and not enabling the addiction (by constantly lending money or trying to ‘fix’ things).

I would say making addicts aware of their options whenever possible is important, but the thing which is most lacking is safe housing and opportunities to detox in a supported and structured environment.

What would you like audiences to take away from the production?
Anyone who has experienced addiction themselves will, I hope, feel some identification and will enjoy seeing a life they can relate to being portrayed on stage. As for those who don’t know about addiction, I hope they will gain a better understanding and more empathy. And for all audiences I hope it will be possible to see how the wider political and social context affects the lives and options of individual human beings.

The Political History of Smack and Crack is at Bristol Old Vic Weston Studio from January 22-25. For more info, visit bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/smack-crack

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