28/02/15 - Scuttlers at the Royal Exchange

As an avid fan of The Royal Exchange, I like to keep track of all their productions. I'd seen adverts for their latest offering around Manchester and had been umming and ahhing over whether to get tickets.  The decision was made to go after stopping to read the positive reviews on a poster outside the theatre in St Ann's Square.  "It's really good, you should get tickets if you can."  Our comments had drawn the attention of a young man standing on the steps next to us.  After a brief conversation, it turned out he wasn't just an audience member who had enjoyed the performance - he was a member of the cast heading into the theatre to start work.  His enthusiasm, combined with all the good things we'd heard about Scuttlers previously, clinched our decision to make sure we didn't miss it.

Here's the lowdown: Scuttlers is set in late nineteenth century Ancoats, an area of Manchester that is believed to be the world's first industrial suburb.  Life outside the mill walls is poverty-stricken and overcrowded, and in the midsummer heat it's no wonder the young people living in this squalor are becoming restless.  The play's action focusses on the rivalry between the adolescent gangs of Bengal Street and Prussia Street, as well as ever-growing tensions within each group.

There is mounting rivalry between the Bengal Tigers' leader Sean (Bryan Parry) and his second-in-commend Jimmy (Dan Parr), familial bonds are stretched to their limits as 'Mother Tiger' Theresa (Rona Morrison) discovers her brother Joe (Tachia Newall) has returned from the army and is now residing on Prussia Street, reluctant George (Kieran Urquhart) is anxious about leading Prussia Street into battle...but all of this is overshadowed by the arrival of Thomas who arrives in Ancoats with the aim of becoming the king of Bengal Street, just as he claims his father was.  It's difficult to pinpoint a show-stealer in a performance where all the actors have an opportunity to shine, but it was David Judge's performance of Thomas that really stood out to me and even had me shedding a little tear come the climax of the play (I'll say no more for fear of spoilers).  However above all, each and every character has been given a depth that can be unusual in a piece with an ensemble cast and it's exciting to see a play with young actors all giving brilliant energetic performances.  

Photo credit goes to the Royal Exchange Theatre.
The ambience of the theatre is electric from the moment you walk in.  The abstract representation of a cotton mill lowered in and out of centre stage is the only physical piece of set (pictured below), interjecting Eddie Kay's precise and often regimented choreography.  Combined with a furious soundscape, subtle use of smoke effects and aggressive stamping of clogs, this creates an overwhelming gritty industrial atmosphere in which the humanity of the characters' stories can develop.

I was also lucky enough to get tickets on the same night as the after-show discussion with the writer, director and members of the cast.  These Q and A sessions are one of my favourite things about the Royal Exchange; it's a fantastic chance to ask anything you might want to know and to learn a little more about the process by which the performance made it to the stage.  I was particularly interested to hear about how much inspiration Rona Munro took from the 2011 riots when writing Scuttlers, especially since that contemporary influence is never explicitly mentioned.  It's a really good example of how universal the themes are and how the frustration and pent-up energy that young people feel is just as valid today.  Director Wils Wilson echoed the sentiments of Little Shop of Horrors' director Derek Bond in that the Royal Exchange is a very unique space to work in due to the lack of a proscenium arch - the staging and movement gain importance as no two members of the audience will see the same thing.

Time is running out to catch this absolutely stellar production, so scuttle down to the Royal Exchange (I'm sorry, I just couldn't resist) and bag yourself tickets before it closes on Saturday 7th March 2015.  Don't make the mistake that I nearly made, and thank you to Kieran Urquhart for taking the time to recommend the show to us.

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