Written by Rona Munro
Directed by Wils Wilson
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Thursday 5th February – Saturday 7th March 2015

Cast of Scuttlers: photo credit Jonathan Keenan for creativetourist.com
Cast of Scuttlers: photo credit Jonathan Keenan for creativetourist.com

A new play takes pride of place in the Royal Exchange’s main space this month – its subject Manchester’s street gangs of the Industrial Revolution. We follow the Bengal Street Tigers and their rivals, the Prussia Street gang, as their teenaged members are caught up in a turbulent war of gin-fuelled violence amid the cotton mills of Ancoats.

As soon as the audience enters the Royal Exchange’s unique auditorium, it is clear that the production has been designed with this specific place firmly in mind. Not only is Scuttlers set in central Manchester – just up the road, in fact – but the set perfectly blends its historical setting with its theatrical one. A circular frame in the middle of the floor supports a cone-shaped web of threads towering upwards, not only creating a startling visual inside the Exchange’s cylindrical space, but literally putting cotton centre-stage. Along with the whirs, clunks and roars of Peter Rice’s accompanying soundscape, it spins us into the play, and backwards in time to the thundering mills of Cottonopolis.

Rona Munro’s new script is engaging and packs a punch by showing us the effects of gang life on three girls, each of whom occupies a different position within the culture of the Bengal Street Tigers. It’s refreshing to see a variety of young female characters with their own, distinctive voices. There is also wannabe new recruit Thomas, charmingly played by David Judge, whose desperation to be included leads him into the kind of trouble that you might expect, but the heart of the play is with the girls, and particularly Theresa (Rona Morison), whose tough exterior breaks when she’s brought face-to-face with her own tragic past.

Supported by a well-rehearsed cast of community actors, the ensemble make a good job of showing us both the interpersonal dramas amid gang members and the wider picture of battle after territorial battle. The scene in which each gang stares the other down across a bridge, before both sides finally charge, is cleverly staged in the round space, and the tension-and-release pattern of fights leads up to a suitable climax.

Supposedly inspired by the 2011 riots in Manchester, the production points out the parallels between then and now – the theatre’s walls are decorated with modern graffiti tags in the names of the gangs, and the cast don modern dress briefly for a symbolic finale. But the message could be more refined: we are merely reminded that gang violence still exists today, as if anybody could deny that. This blunt commentary leaves the finale a little underwhelming – an incisive production in parts, but elsewhere, Scuttlers could afford to cut a little deeper.