According to The Political History of Smack and Crack, prior to the 1980s and the dawn of Thatcherism, there was an estimated 3,000 deaths from heroin in the UK, mostly to middle class users. During her reign, this went up to 330,000, and this time, the addicted were poorer.
Set initially during the riots of 1981, and moving through the decade, Mandy (Eve Steele) and Neil (William Fox) attempt to navigate a fragmented Britain, as well as the push and pull of a friendship forever teetering on the brink of romance. Add drug addiction, shoplifting and prostitution to the mix and there’s an incendiary potency.
Ed Edwards, who collaborated with Steele, herself an ex addict in real life, in forging this beautiful, funny, but painfully sad play, has created two complex characters and a densely layered drama. There’s no set to detract, making the whole piece entirely focused on the duo, whose physicality is astonishing. They seem to visibly age and ‘shrink’.
The political and personal fuse seamlessly, as Mandy and Neil put the dance of their relationship into context: under the Margaret Thatcher-led government, there was a demonstrable disregard for working- class kids like them, as housing prices went up and the cost of drugs went down.
So, too, does the power between the pair shift throughout the production. One minute Neil is in the grip of a brutal heroin and crack addiction, with Mandy pulling him into an almost evangelical rehabilitation; then it’s Mandy who relapses. Edwards also links love to drug abuse, as co-dependency is the symbol of broken estates.
Yet, with its overlapping dialogue and breaks to dictate Manchester’s legacy of addiction, the play, performed subtly in the round, with naturalistic direction by Cressida Brown, is so engaging and heartfelt, with swathes of gallows humour that it’s impossible not to get hooked.
Brilliantly, there are no judgemental interludes (nobody learns or grows here) or simple, stereotypical resolutions, just wonderful storytelling and a bracing sense of warmth and intimacy, making Mandy and Neil worth caring for. They’re not poster kids for drugs: instead, they are so believable, so flawed yet likeable that you long to lean over, embrace them and try to intervene, knowing ultimately, it’s too late. The soundtrack, from Bauhaus, to reggae sound systems, to BPMs, is superb too.