Writer: Rona Munro
Director: Wils Wilson
Reviewer: Hannah Hiett
It’s 1885 and the streets of Manchester are crackling with energy, youth and violence in Rona Munro’s brand new play, Scuttlers. Following hot on the heels of The James Plays, which has taken the theatre world by storm, Munro has found her niche in creating historical works that speak across centuries.
The characters in her story may be dressed in the fashions of 1885, earn their living in the great cotton mills and call themselves ‘Scuttlers’ (the gangs of Ancoats, Manchester and Salford of the late 19th century) but with a change of dress (and industry) and there’d be little to distinguish their stories from the lives of young people who have fallen through the grid in Manchester’s less glossy neighbourhoods today.
Scuttlers is the story of The Bengal Street Tigers and the Prussia Street Gang. Their territories are separated by a bridge, and a long history of bloodshed on both sides. It’s got a bit of a ‘two houses, both alike in dignity’ feel to it… gang loyalties divide parents from their children, brothers from sisters and lovers from one another in a drama that feels simultaneously epic and domestic… a turf war for dominion over pavements and street corners.
We meet a range of young people whose hard lives have kicked them to the bottom of society, to the streets of Ancoats. Margaret (Caitriona Ennis) is 16 and has been made homeless after resisting the abuse of her mother’s drunken boyfriend. The Tigers take her in and the opening scene illustrates a brutal, tribal revenge attack on the ‘kiddie fiddler’ in question (sound uncannily contemporary? It’s supposed to.)
Teresa (Rona Morison) is a young woman who, after her mother’s early death, was left to fend for herself from the age of ten. Ethereal, majestic, vulgar and warm all at once, Rona Morison as Teresa is a veritable street Titania. She gets the biggest laugh of the night with a single line… ‘I f***ing bet you would.’ (Fill in your own context for that one.)
Teresa is not only the ‘mother’ of the Tigers, but Sean’s girl (Sean being the alpha male of the pack, played by Bryan Parry, who you definitely wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night in Ancoats). A whole Fagin’s gang of street urchins, sporting rags and a fierce, implacable pride in being a Tiger make up the rest of motley family, where pecking order and territory is all. It’s a compelling thing, to be inducted into the secret inner life of a tribal community, and ‘Tiger business’ – the internal power struggles, romances, hatreds and friendships – is revealed to us in all it’s dirty-laundry, gritty channel-4-drama glory.
On the other side of the bridge, we meet Joe, a young soldier returned from abroad to learn that his sweetheart has had his baby. Tachia Newall exudes boyish energy and a sunny lack of responsibility from the off. He drops into the darkness out of some kind of light that none of the mill-workers of Ancoats have ever known, and can’t seems to understand why everyone’s so grumpy with him for running off to join the army. Anna Krippa is understated and dignified as the abandoned girlfriend and single mother, who has to make the choice of whether to let Joe back into her life, now that she has the baby to think of. (Soap opera gold right?)
The story culminates, inevitably, in a vicious street fight between rival gangs, beautifully choreographed by Frantic Assembly’s Eddie Kay, and the arrest of Sean, his mutinous deputy Jimmy (Dan Parr) and the upstart Thomas (David Judge) who ‘isn’t even a real Tiger’ but condemns himself trying to prove his worth to the gang. Judge’s performance is particularly moving as a troubled, talented outsider who tells as many lies as truths and desperately wants to fit in, to belong, to be loved.
Stage design, due to the amount of frantic movement and the size of the ensemble is minimal, and the set dominated by a huge cotton loom on an industrial crank that serves as chandelier, canopy and, finally, prison bars – a nice touch – as the lives and deaths of so many were served imprisoned in the shadow of the cotton mills.
Denis Jones’ live music can’t go without a mention – pounding basslines and samples of industrial machinery dominate the moments of violence. A Victorian gin parlour is transformed into the dance floor of the infamous Hacienda through sound – tribal, aggressive, insistent and smacking of the rhythm of the giant machines that pound out the soundtrack to the Scuttlers’ lives. Anyone who caught Jeremy Deller’s exhibition ‘All That’s Solid Melts into Air’ at The Manchester Art Gallery last year will pick up on the cotton-thread of a shared idea… generations spent among the rhythm and power of machines influenced (through an inherited sympathy with big bad basslines) the sound of the Madchester rave scene of the 1980’s and ‘90’s.
It’s a cool idea, and it’s gratifying to watch the threads of humanity traced across past and present, highlighted at last in little Polly (Chloe Harris) appealing to passersby, who stride past her, unseeing, on their phones and wearing hoodies. The Scuttlers are gone, but their ghosts still haunt the old streets of Ancoats.
Runs until 7 March 2015 | Photo: Jonathan Keenan