Based on the book “The Gangs of Manchester” by Andrew Davies the play describes the Scuttler gang phenomenon of late Victorian Ancoats in Manchester.
The area of Ancoats – on the fringes of Manchester’s city centre – described by its 21st century marketing for old build conversions and new build housing as “the world’s first industrial suburb” – was on the 19th century a teeming, overcrowded working class melee of housing and industry.
From this mix emerged the Scuttlers: Youths with a distinct identity of haircuts, trousers, belts and shoes who engaged in violent turf wars with those from neighbouring streets.
The play centres on the rivalry between the Bengal Street and Prussia Street gangs. The narrative of their existing and developing conflict is the weakest part of the play. However an interesting element is the part of women in this gang culture and how in this new industrial world they find independence either thrust upon them – by orphanhood or domestic abuse – or seek it – and try to maintain it by embracing the Scuttler ethos.
Yet the play triumphs in sound, stage and crowd. The musical soundscape provides a fitting backdrop to the packed, teeming district of life and workspace. The stage, along with the crowd, evokes the repetitive, intense labour those who work in the mills.
And the crowd itself enlivens the stage with a sense of the mass, whether in work, lodgings, streets or the pubs of Ancoats.
Stories of gangs can have a familiar theme – Verona? New York? – perhaps repeated here in what ,despite that , is magnificent closing scene and is worth the ticket in itself. But with the reassertion of authority and a reflection on continuity it is maybe like Alex in “A Clockwork Orange” or the back of “The Clash’s” “White Riot” picture sleeve. Is the rebellion of youth temporary? Or should the fundamental conflict be between the ruled and the rulers?
Manchester’s Original Street Gangs
by Rona Munro
Royal Exchange Theatre
5 Feb – 7 Mar 2015