He’s done it again!
A few years ago, Ed Edwards exploded into Edinburgh with ‘A Political History of Smack and Crack’, performed at the Fringe Festival. It was a brilliant piece of political theatre, setting personal stories of drug addiction in Eighties Britain against the background of brutal Tory policies of deindustrialization and the historical encouragement of the international drugs trade by the U.S., Britain and France in the course of their imperialist adventures.
Now he’s back in Edinburgh, together with Mark Thomas, the actor, comedian and political activist, with the equally explosive ‘England & Son’, which could well have been called ‘The Political History of Toxic Masculinity’.
This time, the personal story in the foreground is about a boy’s relationship with his father, named England. It’s about his unmet childhood need for approval and parental love, and his chaotic descent into crime, drink and drug addiction.
This history of domestic abuse is framed by the bigger England – the political story of imperial exploitation and oppression. His father is an ex-soldier scarred by experiences in the British Army, suppressing the communist-led insurgency in Malaya by using torture, killing and mutilation to maintain the exploitation of bauxite and rubber by British companies. The parallel to this ‘legalised robbery’ as the boy sees it is his juvenile offending, as he becomes an expert at valuing and stealing jewellery and antiques out of well-off middle-class homes.
Ed Edwards’ writing weaves comedy and tragedy together in a way which accentuates both elements. Right from the start, where the homeless, sleeping son is about to be emptied into a bin lorry, the viewer is immersed – or rather thrown into – a ferociously funny and thrilling drama, full of rage and hurt but also laced with humour, tenderness and empathy.
Edwards has overcome one of the pitfalls of the British tradition of social realism, whereby novels, plays and films sometimes come across as very worthy but also as monotonous, bleak and despairing as the world they portray.
Through skilful use of techniques such as flashbacks, variations of pace, comic asides, lively dialogue and arresting light and sound effects, he manages to convey both the horror of the personal and political stories, and the essentially warm humanity of the main characters.
Photo: Alex Brenner
Edwards has also found the perfect expressive skillset in Mark Thomas, the sole actor in the play. For an hour, Thomas is in our faces, roaming round the circular stage in a tremendous display of acting, expressing both the sweaty, spitting rage and violence of the father and the innocent, joking resilience of his son.
Amidst the frothy banalities of so much of the Fringe these days, this play stands out – political theatre at its most entertaining, engaging and effective.