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

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."

Club legend Paul Scholes is scared United could disappear into 'the wilderness'
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Rodgers showered praise on Balotelli last week, which led to speculation he could sign the AC Milan front man
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music(who aren't Arctic Monkeys)
Lizards, such as Iguanas (pictured), have a unique pattern of tissue growth
Anna Nicole Smith died of an accidental overdose in 2007
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

EYFS Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education require an ex...

Year 3 Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 primary supply teacher ne...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply special educational ne...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home