Writer: Ed Edwards
Director: Cressida Brown
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Mustard Tree is a charity that works to tackle homelessness, its causes and consequences, and both of those are often a dependence on drugs. So this room in the charity’s Ancoats centre is a fitting place for this short play that explores how the complicated political history of heroin has impacted hundreds of thousands of lives. It’s a rather clinical, brightly lit room. The kind of room that might easily be the venue for a support group meeting. Sitting around its edges, we’re complicit in everything that happens, drawn into the world of Neil and Mandy.
And Neil and Mandy’s world is not one where you’d choose to be. Two people, drawn together through shared experiences, addiction, and eventually love, they struggle to achieve the life they both crave – and it’s hardly like they want much.
This punchy hour of storytelling is a highly personal reflection of lives dominated by craving – for the next fix, for normality, and for human contact. Through it is woven the history of heroin and its movement around the world, from its early medicinal use at the turn of the 20thcentury to the massive, deadly increase in recreational use in the 1980s and the politics that allowed it to happen. It’s a hugely compelling way to pack a lot into a short show, the two actors delivering the story as multiple characters at a terrific pace.
The play is also a love-letter to Manchester. We get a frantic recreation of the 1981 Moss Side riots seen through the eyes of Neil and Mandy as children, Market Street and the Northern Quarter are cleverly conjured for scenes of shoplifting, awkward meetings and drug-fuelled euphoria. Given there’s no set, no props and barely any stage lighting, the play has extraordinary theatricality.
Eve Steele and Neil Bell deliver relentlessly challenging, exciting and funny performances. They charge around the tiny space, get up close with the audience and play off each other with real magnetism. Most of all they inhabit these difficult, complex characters with real humanity and empathy – and pass that on to their audience.
This is theatre with a real message, of the personal and the political. It avoids being worthy, preachy, or over-emotional. It just asks us to understand, to think a bit more about what’s behind what we’re increasingly seeing on our streets, and to do what we can to help.
Runs until 15 November 2018 | Image: The Other Richard