The Political History of Smack and Crack, Soho Theatre

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by Laura Kressly

Mandy and Neil have known each other since they were kids. They grew up in Manchester’s Moss Side in the 80s and 90s, watching the streets burn in the riots then be flooded by drug dealers hawking heroin. There’s hardly been a time where drugs weren’t a part of their lives.

Eve Steele and Neil Bell play Mandy and Neil in the third person, hopping back and forth over time to narrate their encounters with each other, both significant and pedestrian. Each one centres around drugs; they are either trying to get high, getting high or recovering from getting high. The cycle of drug use – direct, focused searching followed by a brief moment of bliss – helps form the play’s rhythms, but not aggressively so. There’s scope for the characters to break free from this existence, but the wolf is never far from the door when they do.

It’s refreshing to see friendship and loyalty embedded in a narrative that is usually one of alienation and despair. Perhaps this gives a more sanitised view of drug addiction, but it also serves to emphasise that there’s hope for those who want to come clean and have a support network. It doesn’t shy away from reality, though – a sprinkling of scenes add, well, some political history of smack and crack, along with recovery rate statistics, and heroin use’s relationship with Margaret Thatcher and the early 80s riots.

This wider context is fascinating, but the core of this play is Neil and Mandy’s relationship. This helps the story steer clear of becoming stereotypical poverty porn as whilst the two characters certainly evoke sympathy and are very much victims of their surroundings, they are fully realised with a complex and varied dynamic.

An energised staging, short and snappy scenes and a non-linear narrative support the story’s emotional depth within a broader view of addiction. Combined with a good balance between the personal and political and their intersections, this is an engaging story that humanises addicts and reinforces their struggle to get and stay clean.

The Political History of Smack and Crack runs through 22 September.

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