Gangs and culture: ‘West Side Story’ strikes a chord with young Mancunians

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The Independent Online

The scene is an inner-city street on a sultry summer's evening. Two rival gangs are circling each other prior to starting a fight; some of the youths are carrying knives, and in the ensuing, bloodsoaked melee, one of the leaders is stabbed to death.

If the story sounds familiar, that's because it is one of the most famous scenes from West Side Story. But, to the audience watching the latest production of Leonard Bernstein's famous score in Manchester tonight, it will strike an altogether less romantic chord.

For, 50 years after the musical was first staged in Britain, the bitter battles beween the Jets and the Sharks in 1950s New York have a resonance in a modern-day city itself blighted by gun and knife crime.

The Royal Northern College of Music is staging a production in which its own students are playing the lead roles of Tony and Maria, while the remaining cast members come from 13 inner-city state schools.

There are plans to transfer the production to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, and a theatre has already been tentatively booked. The schools do not have the facilities to stage a grand musical in front of a 700-strong audience, so the event will give talented youngsters the chance to shine in a professional production that they otherwise would not have had. Perhaps more poignantly, the subject matter of West Side Story is as relevant today as it was when it made its debut in the UK at the Manchester Opera House in 1958, and can send a warning to youngsters about the dangers of gang culture.

Greg Batsleer, the show's 19-year-old musical director, said: "It shows that kids who get caught up in gangs [are] not bad kids. They just get caught up in it because there's nothing else to do. Even those who don't want anything to do with the gang culture – like Tony – get caught up in it and get killed.

"We did think about changing the script to bring it more into line with modern times. After all, the phrases that the Jets and Sharks use – like 'whammo bammo' – aren't relevant now. We found we couldn't, though, through copyright, but it doesn't spoil the story.

"We're also creating the kind of environment that's similar to a professional theatre for these kids. They had to go through an audition first and we hope to be going to the Edinburgh Fringe. The cast really want to go and that's taking their drama experience to a new level."

The plan to make stars of inexperienced performers seems to have worked. Charlie Dalfinis, a 14-year-old pupil at Trinity High School in Manchester, who plays a Jet girl, said: "I've never done anything as big as this before. This is fantastic – it's one of the greatest experiences of my life. I want to be an actress. I went for an audition and thought: 'I'll give it a try.' It's changed my life." All of the cast are aged between 14 and 23. Some of the older school pupils – like Matthew Whittaker, a 15-year-old from Reddish Vale Technology College in Stockport,who plays Juano, also a Shark – have already decided to try for a career in drama. Whittaker wants to become a teacher.

And as an object lesson in the dangers of gangs, the 56 youngsters involved in the production, from singers and dancers to backstage staff, recognise the similarities between the New York streets of the 1950s and the Manchester of today.

"I didn't know West Side Story before," said 18-year-old Chris Pollard, a student at Holy Cross College in Bury who plays Ice, a member of the Jets. "But it's a good play and it's relevant today." For Alice Young, a 17-year-old student from Xaverian College in Manchester, who plays Minnie, a Jet girl, it has been good to meet so many youngsters from different schools and backgrounds. "There's a spirit of co-operation between us," she said.

The production has received the backing of the Government's Aimhigher programme in Manchester, Stockport and Tameside, a scheme that aims to persuade youngsters to stay on in education and training after the age of 16. And the RNCM is insistent this will not be a one-off, and that the youngsters involved will be able to take part in more high quality productions in future.

The programme notes for West Side Story further demonstrate the musical's relevance. "The Sharks (Puerto Ricans) are experiencing the usual hostility towards first-generation immigrants with low unemployment and little respect from the law," they read. "The Jets are also from immigrant families but, importantly, are American-born. However, nearly all of them come from broken homes and are unable to find jobs. They find a family in the gang."