BBC News

UK's gun and knife problem tackled by young actors

By Dhruti Shah
BBC News, Kentish Town, London

image captionThe problem of gun and knife crime affects young people across the country.

"Let's just merc them," the teenage boy said menacingly as he looked at the strangers sleeping in the squat where he had stored his illegal guns.

His desire to kill was underlined as he aimed the weapon he had just picked up from his stash.

But, as the young actors involved in the Zip: Gun and Knife Crime theatre project prepared to deliver their next lines, director Ray Shell stopped them and encouraged them to think about their own experiences and channel it into their performances.

Violent circumstances

What makes this £10,000 lottery-funded project different from many others is that most of the crew are not professionals but young people who have either dabbled in London's gun and knife scene or know people immersed in it.

They came to workshops, told their stories and helped create this piece of musical theatre focusing on turf wars.

Actress Tashana Peterkin, 18, said she wanted to get involved so she could explain to the audiences what it was like living in London where gang life was rife. She said it was easy to get hold of guns.

She said: "I've heard they can cost just £45 - it's shocking but you don't need too much to find one."

When Tashana was younger a relative was sent to jail for stabbing a boy and she said his five-year absence had a marked affect on her.

She said: "It made me lose a lot of respect for him and think, 'I don't want to be involved in that.'"

But the scene was hard for her to avoid and at one point she began spending time with a group of girls who tried to "act all gangster".

"When I was about 12, I thought it would be cool to be in a gang. I started hanging around with a large group and we would wear hoodies. We used to think we were so great."

And she said for many it was all about maintaining impressions and power.

"I've seen loads of people over the years who try to act all gangster and then you see them going to church where they say 'please and thank you' to the people they had been threatening."

But when one friend stabbed a girl on a tram with a compass for "disrespecting" her, Tashana knew she wanted out.

"She slit her and I knew that it wasn't what I wanted for my life."

Fellow actor Victor Muir plays an innocent trainee lawyer who "is in the wrong place at the wrong time", when he becomes a victim of a turf war.

image captionActress Tashana Peterkin and actor Victor Muir have both been in gangs

The 23-year-old former gang member said he knew people who carried weapons because they thought it was what people in gangs were supposed to do.

He said: "People get categorised in a certain way but not everyone in gangs wear hoodies - I used to wear suits and never got searched. A lot of it is about the way you convey yourself."

He explained that some gangs in London were set up as business ventures with each member taking on a certain role - some of which were more violent than others.

He warned that spending cuts and job losses could lead to more people joining gangs if they felt it was the only way they would be able to pay their bills.

"You hire a man for work and he earns you money - that's how it works. That's how it worked with us.

"You can get 20 friends out of work who are not doing anything and you ask them to help with some supplies you've come across.

"They have to think about feeding themselves - that's how it builds up," he said.

But his turning point came after his mother's intervention and her tears made him realise he wanted a different life.

He became a plumber and electrician and said the key was to ensure young people felt they had prospects.

image captionDirector Ray Shell says the production has been a collaborative effort

Supt Adrian Rabot from the Metropolitan Police said he was interested in hearing more about the project as it tied in with many of the same goals the police had.

He said theatre was one way to reach out to young people but the key was making them feel as though they belonged.

He admitted the Met had less money to spend on programmes but said: "We just need to be more imaginative in the current economic climate."

Darren Johnson from the charity Action for Children agreed: "It's important that vital funding is not lost as we need to intervene before vulnerable young people get caught up in gun and knife crime and find it too hard to unravel themselves.

"These are investments that will save money in the long run."

He supported calls to urge the government to think carefully before making any decisions around cutting funding to such projects.

But a spokesman for the Home Office said the government continued to remain committed to tackling the problem and had already provided £4m this financial year towards a number of schemes tackling youth violence across the country.

He said 144 community organisations would also be given £10,000 each to pay for projects which encourage young people to steer away from knife and gun cime.

He added that campaigner Brooke Kinsella was soon to reveal the results of a review into whether projects designed to deter young people from violent crime were actually working.

Back in the theatre above the Lion and Unicorn pub in Kentish Town, the actors continue rehearsing for their first performance at the Camden Fringe Festival on Monday.

"We ain't saying nuthin'; we don't know nuthin'", one character says.

Mr Shelling, artistic director of the Giant Olive Theatre Company, which is behind the project, said the point was to ensure that the UK's young victims were never forgotten.

"We're doing it because we want people to remember that those who have died had names and they had lives that were interrupted.

"They were not just statistics," he said.

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