Joan Davies discovers a medley of writing talent in this theatrical bargain beneath the arches
After eight and a half years of success, with many sell-out shows, JB Shorts can be regarded as a Manchester institution. Its mix of six fifteen-minute plays written by television writers stretching their muscles to deliver snappy or thought-provoking mini-stories performed by talented casts - a mix of newcomers and familiar faces - is guaranteed entertainment. The current crop, JB Shorts 17, provides an entertaining night out for well under a tenner. An absolute bargain.
The opening play, Turn Around When Possible, negotiates familiar territory: a broken-down car pushing a shaky relationship to articulate its crisis. Should the couple take the satnav’s advice to ‘turn around’? A few twists to the tale reveal the underlying pressures, the power of commitment, and a clear message to improve communications. Written by Helen Farrall and neatly directed by Craig Sanders - with engaging performances by Gareth Bennett-Ryan, Alexandra Maxwell and Julia Walsh - it’s a fine starter.
JB Shorts has moved from its original Joshua Brooks home to 53two, in the former Bauer Millet car showroom
A meatier dish tackles the current challenge: how do you satirise the USA when reality supplies such competition? Writer James Quinn, again in collaboration with daughter Aileen Quinn, has crafted an excellent piece which gives a partial answer. The two-hander Living The Dream places America aka Sam - presumably Uncle - in rehab, with a black nurse, Rosa, presumably Parkes. Sandra Cole and Adam Jowett excel in their many-layered roles and director Martha Simon varies the pace suitably. This work has presence and is probably the one of the six which will stay in my mind. It isn’t Trump-dependent either. In fact, I can’t recall the T-word being uttered. While it isn’t by any stretch Quinn’s funniest, it is a strong step in negotiating the Trump-era satire landscape.
James Quinn then inhabits the lead role in Peter Kerry’s Pretty Pimpin'. Middle-aged academic Richard is debating his eight discs for Desert Island. We’ve all done it, but this time it’s for real, and probably more important than it used to be now that the web provides a semi-permanent record of this carefully-curated glimpse of soul. What starts as a very funny take on self-image, reinvention and inter-generational dissonance flows into a moving reflection of loss. Chris Honer’s direction perfectly enhances the argumentative yet loving conversations of family, and there’s an excellent performance too from Alice Proctor as daughter Janet.
After the interval, Ian Kershaw’s Keep Breathing ramps up the pace. Carly (Amy Drake) runs her speed class Spin Hacienda, dissects her life and realises that her dreary, cheating boyfriend Matt (Ethan Holmes) is non-essential to her future. There’s a touch of Victoria Wood here, though the self-awareness takes longer to develop. Hugely enjoyable and well-directed, as ever, by Joyce Branagh; with a superb engaging performance from Amy Drake.
Nick Ahad’s Inside Voices is essentially First Dates, without the Gallic charm of the Maître D, but with added alter-egos articulating the voice in the head. George Wants’ direction is tight, capturing strong performances all round and achieving clarity throughout. Particularly impressive is Adam Rickitt, once a handsome Nick Tilsley of Corrie. He tones down his looks with specs, a cardie and a creative line in physical nervousness to play first-dater Bob. In contrast to the almost young Norris-like figure portrayed, Bob’s alter ego is a confident ladies’ man; a convincing appearance from Leon Tagoe.
In the tradition of keeping the best till last, Pot Plant by Dave Simpson and Diane Whitley, directed by Alice Bartlett, is a gentle comedy with a strong point. Pensioners Brian (Stephen Aintree) and Iris (Jenny Gregson) are having a quiet night in when their house is raided by the police (Simon Naylor). Surely they’re not law breakers? I won’t divulge anymore but this ticked all the boxes for a perfect fifteen-minute play; leaving the audience both giggling and stirred.
JB Shorts has moved from its original Joshua Brooks home to 53two, a delightful arches site in the former Bauer Millet car showroom. So the arrival, interval, and post-show drinks are relaxed and friendly. And there are pies! I didn’t sample these, having beforehand tried out the pre-theatre menu at Gusto on Deansgate. Tickets for JB Shorts are £8 + 80p booking, so that’s a whole evening out for well under £30, plus drinks.
And people say Manchester is too much like London?
JB Shorts 17 runs until 27 May at 53two, 8 Albion Street, M1 5LN
Pre-theatre menu at Gusto
Conveniently-located for several Manchester theatres, Gusto Deansgate is the ideal venue for a pre-show meal. A starter of tagliatelle with smoked salmon, flavoured with dill and tossed in cream, peas and spinach was a robust starter - followed by a main of oven baked fillet of cod wrapped in prosciutto with tenderstem broccoli and chilli.
My companions were no less impressed with theirs: meatballs and fondue board for starters, mushroom risotto and roast chicken breast for mains.
The early evening menu is available from 5pm Monday to Thursday. At £16.95 for two, an extra £3 for a third, it’s a stand out performance for both quality and choice. We’ll be back for an encore…