Rona Munro is a playwright of some note, having won a number of major accolades including a Writers’ Guild award for best play of 2014. So it is something of a coup that she has turned her attention to recreating a seldom explored part of Manchester’s history: the original youth cult and gang culture of the ‘scuttlers’.
Staying true to the extensive research undertaken by Andrew Davies (whom I interviewed for Northern Soul last year), the stage play of Scuttlers takes place on the grimy streets of Ancoats where life in the shadow of the mills was verging on feral.
The show opens with a clever recreation of working life in the mill by the ensemble cast, with electronic beats of modern society as a backdrop. Without further ado, the story launches straight into the lives of two rival gangs, the Bengal Tigers and Prussia St, focusing on the daily struggles and challenges of gang life. Who is the leader? Who is his girl? What happens if someone crosses the bridge to the other side?
The cast skillfully convey the futility of life in industrial Manchester where fun is constantly sought but rarely found, and their frustrations are taken out on the streets. David Judge (Thomas), Chloe Harris (Polly) and Rona Morison (Theresa) are particularly strong, holding the audience in thrall.
The historical accuracies are breathtaking, from the scuttlers’ distinctive haircuts to their outfits and weapons of choice (knives and belt buckles). But the play doesn’t get too bogged down by this and a mention must go to Denis Jones for his wonderful work on the music. A scene at the end of the first half almost brings the play into modern times and shows there is nothing new under the sun; the frustrations faced by teenagers in call centres today may be a world away from 19th century mill workers, but their reactions are the same.
The plot stays just on the right side of predictable, with an ambitious number of story strands which, in the space of two hours, are a challenge to convey. Character development is a little light on seemingly key roles, perhaps serving to highlight weaker cast members.
With this subject matter, there could have been a temptation to focus on the depressing struggle faced by the scuttlers, but Munro trusts the audience to draw its own conclusions, and there is enough comedy and banter to render the play an entertainment rather than straightforward historical re-enactment.
I sense that only the Royal Exchange could do justice to a play of this nature. Driving home through Ancoats, it was possible to feel the spirits of the Bengal Tigers who caused havoc on those Manchester streets almost 150 years ago.
By Chris Park
Photos: Jonathon Keenan
Where: The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
When: until March 7, 2015
More Info: www.royalexchange.co.uk/whats-on-and-tickets/scuttlers