Camilla Lindner reviews Scuttlers, a play about the gang culture of 1880s Manchester. A thought provoking play, which engages all of the senses
While dust is rising on the stage, small pieces of cotton wool descend from the theatre ceiling in a similar way to snowflakes. On stage, people are working in a cotton mill, which is represented by a cylinder like construction of yarn hanging down from the top of the ceiling. The loud sound of the working machines can be heard all over the stage.
Scuttlers is written by Mona Munro and directed by Wils Wilson. It places the audience in the back streets of Manchester of the 1880s. Youngsters are living on certain streets which they call their territory. With empty eyes they walk silently around in the foyer of Royal Exchange Theatre before the start of the performance, an action which is repeated during the interval. Because of the difficult situation they have to face in their daily lives, they get together and create gangs. ‘The Tigers’ is one of them.
Here, female teenage power holds the group together. Theresa is the leader and is played persuasively by Rona Morison. Her motto—“No one looks after me but me”—emphasises both the strength and stubbornness that she has had to construct for herself to cope with the death of nearly every family member. Thomas (David Judge), who wants to be part of the gang and later will be, describes her as “mad and loud”. Two of her best friends, Polly (Chloe Harris) and Margaret (Caitriona Ennis), are also members of the Tigers. While Margaret is traumatised by the rape of her mother’s boyfriend, Polly seems to be the stronger person. But when the other gang steals her trousers, bell, and jacket and puts her into a dirty petticoat, she loses all of her strength, confidence, and identity as a Tiger and leaves the gang.
The last scene combines past and present: the trial scene of Thomas, who killed two people, vanishes behind the cotton yarn, while the water on stage takes on a red colour. The actors walk hectically over the stage in modern clothes while Polly stands ghostlike between them. Her repeated line “Don’t walk there. It’s a man’s blood. A man died here.” is not heard by the others. Her voice chokes off in between the vivid sound of the city of modern Manchester.
Scuttlers is a play for everyone. It is especially the sounds, the stage setting, and lighting that make the performance strong and leave the audience astonished and lost in thought.
Scuttlers is on at The Royal Exchange Theatre from 7/02 – 07/03.