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Edinburgh Festival Theatre Diary of the Plague Years

MIKE QUILLE recommends a damning political exposé of the smack and crack epidemic in 1980s Britain

The Political History of Smack and Crack

Roundabout@Summerhall

 

THIS new play by Ed Edwards is an outstanding combination of radical political insight and Trainspotting-style dramatic excitement.

Fizzing with radical protest, humour and authenticity, it's set against the backdrop of the epidemic of heroin, cocaine and drug-related crime that swept across Britain in the 1980s, damaging and demoralising working-class communities, just as Thatcher’s neoliberal policies were destroying their employment prospects.

Based on the author’s own experience, it traces the lives of Manchester addicts Eve Steele and and Neil Bell, caught up in drug use, crime and the 1981 working-class riots in Moss Side that were echoed in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and many other towns and cities.

Through the bold dramatic device of using two “neutral” narrators, whose voices seamlessly blend into the two leading characters, the play insistently dramatises the shameful political history alongside the individual stories.

It shows how the brutal effects of the drug and crime epidemics of the 1980s were the direct result of counter-revolutionary foreign policies by Britain and other Western governments, desperate to uphold what the writer describes as “a decaying capitalist order.”

In Afghanistan and Nicaragua during that decade, the US and Britain supported the armed rebellions of the mojahedin and the contras. The West allowed, facilitated or directly supported drug production and smuggling by these reactionary rebels because profits from drugs paid for their guns and bullets.

Those profits were made on the streets of Manchester, Detroit and countless other cities and towns in the US and Britain.

Provoking laughter, anger and sadness, Cressida Brown's production reminds us of the social misery caused by neoliberal capitalist policies and the urgent need to challenge and change the status quo.

At a time when radical theatre is being discouraged — note the striking lack of political plays on Radio 4 — and when there are growing barriers to working-class participation in the theatre as actors, writers, subjects and audiences, this arresting new play is an exceptional example of exciting, relevant political theatre.

Runs until August 26, box office: festival18.summerhall.co.uk. A longer version of this review, with an essay by Ed Edwards, is published in Culture Matters, culturematters.org.uk

 

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