Interview: Cressida Brown talks about THE POLITICAL HISTORY OF SMACK AND CRACK at Riverside Studios

Director Cressida Brown on a sparky re-staging of love, addiction and civil unrest in 1981

By: Jun. 07, 2022

Interview: Cressida Brown talks about THE POLITICAL HISTORY OF SMACK AND CRACK at Riverside Studios

Cressida Brown, Artistic Director of Offstage Theatre and a freelance director, is best known for site-specific shows based around interviews with real people.

Her work includes Amphibians, showcasing stories from former Olympic swimmers and staged in a secret pool under Bridewell Theatre stage and Walking the Tightrope, including writers Caryl Churchill, Timberlake Wertenbaker and Mark Ravenhill, on freedom of expression. She spoke to BroadwayWorld about her new staging of addiction drama, The Political History of Smack and Crack, the need to hear Northern voices and audience reactions in different venues.

Why are you re-staging The Political History of Smack and Crack, first performed at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, now?

We were supposed to put this two-hander on back in 2021 - the 40th anniversary of the 1981 riots in Moss Side, Manchester ­- but I was pregnant with my first child and Covid was raging, so it was delayed.

Is the play still pertinent to audiences today?

1981 was a time when people rose up and changed the status quo by protesting against stop and search laws, and racial profiling disproportionately affecting Black and Asian communities. There was quite a lot of blind-eye turning back then to people, particularly the working classes, injecting themselves with heroin. However, the play isn't just looking at heroin addiction in the 80s and 90s, but also at what was happening politically with the Thatcher government.

Although this is something that happened four decades ago, the necessity to challenge the status quo again with movements like Black Lives Matter highlighting institutional racism gives the play even more bite, making it unbelievably relevant. And addiction is always with us. The current Oxycontin crisis is very sad, if not a slightly different story, but the message is the same. According to the authorities, there are people worth saving - and people not worth saving.

What would you say to those who might criticise a white middle-class director's portrayal of a world she hasn't experienced?

It's absolutely a concern, which is why 90% of the creative team ­- including writer Ed Edwards, who did three-and-a-half years in jail for drug offences in the early 90s - are from the North. One of the actors, Neil Bell, was born in Oldham; and the other, Eve Steele, is Mancunian through and through. It's super important we tell this love story about a couple in the Northern quarter, but zoom out to a more universal story including locations like Nicaragua and the United States. The specific can be global.

I feel very privileged to be part of the production team. Ed wanted my dramaturg brain for his script. I love text and like seeing it explode on stage.

You are known for creating plays in unusual spaces. How will you situate it in London's Riverside Studios and NIAMOS in Manchester?

We've gone back to the original concept after touring the play round different theatres where we had to adapt to thrust and other stages. Now, the show will be performed in the round, as it should be.

After the run at the Riverside Studios, we go to a historical and disused building in Moss Side, near the street where the Manchester uprising started. It was once home to the BBC Northern Orchestra and the Nia Centre for African and Caribbean culture. I like the way we're using different buildings with different angles.

What amazes me every time the play is performed in a new space is how some lines just pop out and are heard afresh. While in a prison, the phrase "People surplus to requirements" hit hard. You could hear a pin drop. And when we had a predominantly homeless audience, we got different laughs than from a middle-class audience feeling they can't laugh at certain things.

Do you think we should encourage new writers to come up with brave new works, rather than rely on safer bets, like musicals?

I believe we will never find the classics if we don't find new writers. It took years for one playwright's show to be picked up. It was only when someone famous became involved and something happened in the news that someone finally said, "Oh, this is a good play." And I'm horrified by the number of artistic directors who don't read or see new plays.

It really blows my mind how hard-hitting and entertaining Ed's The Political History of Smack and Crack is. It's a really urgent play that's also really funny. If you support shows and writers like this you will get headlines and audiences will come.

What future projects are you working on?

I recently had a baby, who is now nine months old. So, you probably won't be surprised to hear I'm developing a show about lullabies for under-threes at London's Unicorn Theatre. It's very, very different, but relevant to me at the moment.

I will also be directing Le Malade Imaginaire by Molière in France's Palais De Richelieu to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the playwright's birth.

I'm pitching a version of Taming of the Shrew with Mexican wrestlers that I'd like to take to working men's clubs around the country. And one day I'd like to direct a theatre adaptation of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire.

The Political History of Smack and Crack runs at London's Riverside Studios from 21-25 June, and at NIAMOS, Hulme, Manchester, from 4-9 July

Photo Credit: The Political History of Smack and Crack