It's Manchester, it's the 1980's – and we are thrust into the “epicentre of Margaret Thatcher’s England”. The Political History of Smack and Crack explores the effect of foreign wars, corrupt policing, rioting, anger, upper-class indifference and the Thatcherite government on the life of the individual. Following the gritty story of Mandy and Neil, The Political History… encapsulates the highs and lows of friendship and heroin dependency.
The story plays out in non-chronological order, jumping back and forth between events in the lives of Mandy and Neil: from the first taste of heroin to attempts to get clean, and from Narcotics Anonymous meetings to pharmacy robberies. The pair try to balance their friendship whilst battling an insatiable need to score. Though the play mainly focuses on rounded storytelling by Eve Steele and Neil Bell, The Political History… dips into documentary segments to understand, and cast blame for, the 80s heroin crime wave in the UK.
The power of the piece lies in its relentless script by Ed Edwards. He grounds a clichéd relationship – a will-they-won’t-they childhood friendship – within the context of addiction, so that even without a history of drug use, the audience sympathises with their dynamic. He highlights the loneliness of their dog-eat-dog world, bringing another layer of bitter-sweet tenderness to their unique relationship.
The script is incredibly tight, without a slow moment or one which isn’t building character, developing story or adding to the wider moral. It’s so pacey and packed with meaning and subtle quips that it can be difficult to completely process the dialogue – but in a good way – you feel afraid to miss a single word, and recite lines in your head to extract their full meaning.
This text-heavy piece works well in Summerhall’s Roundabout. With no staging, and just two props, language and an authentic sense of first-hand storytelling keeps The Political History… afloat. Steele and Bell are left with room to toy with the storytelling, adopting various personae and seeming to enjoy working with such a playful script. They are stripped bare in this in-the-round venue, but handle the space and themselves well, with a particularly engaging performance from Bell.
But the play is certainly more of a storytelling-fuelled character study than a Political History, and I am left feeling a little shorted. It is, of course, a difficult thing to balance, and the show finished with my political understanding unchallenged and not particularly enriched.
Still The Political History… is a raw and well-performed masterpiece of writing. Exploring the highs and lows of friendship and drug addiction, and blaming the institution rather than the individual, it’s not a surprise that this play is landing so well at the festival. And, for once, it feels worthy of the hype.