Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

A brand new play that explores the origins of Manchester’s original street gangs, Scuttlers by Rona Munro, is set in the year 1885, but incorporates echoes of the city’s more recent riots. It’s a big, urgent production, stunningly choreographed by Eddie Kay of Frantic Assembly and featuring a cast of over 40 young actors, who race restlessly back and forth across the Exchange’s circular set, propelled along by Denis Jones’ pulsing, electronic score, which incorporates the clanks and rattles of  machinery.

In the heat of summer, two street gangs are edging closer and closer to violent confrontation. The Bengal Street Tigers, led by Sean (Bryan Parry) are preparing to take on their sworn enemies, the Prussia Street gang. Former Tiger, Joe (Tachia Newall) is now a respectable soldier and the father of a baby with local nurse Susan (Anna Krippa), but he has changed his allegiance and now supports Prussia Street. Meanwhile, ‘Tiger cubs’ Margaret, Polly and new girl Theresa, are every bit as committed to their gang as any of their male counterparts. Then along comes Thomas (David Judge) a seemingly mild-mannered lad, but one who is determined to emulate his dead father and be the ‘King’ of Bengal Street. When the cotton mill that employs virtually everyone in Ancoats closes for a three day break, it’s clear that a final showdown is long overdue…

Scuttlers has much to recommend it, though the story itself has an overly familiar feel and the tragic conclusion isn’t really the shocking surprise it ought to have been. It also doesn’t help that some of the dialogue is occasionally swamped by the score, but that’s doubtless something that will improve as the production settles into its stride. Production wise, there are some real delights here. I loved the central ‘loom’ design that could be adapted to provide suggestions of other locations and the unexpected appearance of a rain storm with real water, definitely had the ‘wow’ factor. I also loved the play’s conclusion as a stream of restless walking characters segued into the present, period clothing giving way to hoodies, trainers and mobile phones.

This is strident exciting theatre, well-suited to a younger audience, which I hope it manages to connect with. I only wish the storyline was as innovative as the wonderful choreography and theatrical effects.

3.7 stars

Philip Caveney

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