Reviews Manchester Published 12 February 2015


Royal Exchange ⋄ 5th February - 7th March 2015

Gangs of Manchester.

John Murphy

In the summer of 2011, when the news was full of film of burning buildings, angry mobs, a cowed police force seemingly on the edge of losing control, it felt like things were on the verge of collapse. A tinder trail of anger and violence, sparked in Tottenham in London before spreading up the country and exploding in Nottingham, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester

While Rona Munro’s Scuttlers does not explicitly reference the riots, the playwright has said that they inspired her to research the original Manchester street gangs. The recent riots were fuelled by, depending on your point of view, disenfranchisement or nihilism, but back in 1885 the tide of urban violence seemed to stem from a yearning for belonging and identity. Munro takes this as her starting point, telling the story of the street battles between the Bengal Street Tigers and the Prussia Street Gang, who rule two territories divided by a bridge.

Wils Wilson’s production is a visual and sonic treat. Fly Davis’ deceptively minimal stage design is dominated by an enormous cylindrical cotton loom which rises up and down throughout the performance, while Denis Jones’ live score is almost a character itself: a brooding, clanking, ominous slice of industrial menace (reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails at times) which helps to establish the atmosphere. The aggression and simmering violence within the underbelly of Ancoats is clear from the start. The opening sequence is brilliantly attention-grabbing as a suspected child molester is beaten by the Tigers in a brutal attack.

The play gradually introduces us to the characters, to Margaret, the molester’s intended victim, who is taken in by the Tigers and drawn into their world. There’s a pleasing focus on the women of the gangs: Catrionia Ellis is impressively fierce as Margaret, while Rona Morison, as the young matriarchal figure of the Tigers conveys a world-weary calmness and cynicism that belies her age. The male side of the spectrum is more swaggering; Bryan Parry plays the leader of the pack Sean, while his deputy Jimmy is played by Daniel Parr.

The ensemble playing is strong – and some of the performances are magnetic at times – the production is a stylish one but it’s almost too polished at times. It looks fantastic, it sounds wonderful and the choreographed fight scenes (courtesy of Frantic Assembly’s Eddie Kay) have an intoxicating energy. Yet the scale of the piece combined with the comparatively brief running time of just two hours, means that we never quite get to know any of these characters very well. David Judge, for example, does a fine job as the young dreamer Thomas who wants to be King of the Tigers, but we never really find out what drives him to be part of this world. Only Chloe Harris, as the Tiger ‘cub’ mascot Polly, really succeeds in establishing a connection with the audience. 

Munro also packs in so many characters and so many overlapping stories that it’s often hard to keep track of who’s fighting who. The tale of Joe, a gang-member turned soldier who’s become estranged from his sister, his girlfriend and his new baby has the potential to be a touching one, but because the action constantly cuts back to the various power struggles within the two gangs it gets a bit lost. The  action sequences are a rush to watch, but this rush comes at a cost to the character development. 

There are moments of real potency in among the noise and Wilson ties things back to the present day in a bravura closing scene, where we segue effortlessly back into the 21st century, as mobile-phone clutching residents stream across the stage, unaware that, as the ghost of young Polly tries to remind them in vain, they’re treading in someone’s blood. .


John Murphy

John is the former editor of, and current contributor to, musicOMH. He lives in Sheffield, in the shadow of the famous Crucible and Lyceum theatres, and also reviews in nearby Leeds and Manchester. John is also a huge fan of stand-up comedy, and can be often be found in one of Sheffield's comedy clubs, laughing like a madman.

Scuttlers Show Info

Directed by Wils Wilson

Written by Rona Munro

Cast includes Caitriona Ennis, Chloe Harris, David Judge, Anna Krippa, Rona Morison, Tachia Newall, Kieran Urquhart, Bryan Parry, Daniel Parr Director: Wils Wilson




Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.