Barely a stone’s throw away in physical distance but light years away in almost other aspect from the hullaballoo around the eventual opening of the jaw-droppingly expensive Aviva Studios, one of Manchester’s best-loved grassroots theatrical institutions JB Shorts has set up shop again underneath the arches at 53two, near The Bridgewater Hall.
For anyone who has missed the story so far, JB Shorts began as a conversation between two writers, Trevor Suthers and John Chambers, imagining a festival of short plays written by established TV writers. It could, of course, have turned out to be one of those drunken conversations that never go anywhere. Instead, Trevor and John followed it up by finding a venue at Joshua Brooks (JB, get it?), then bringing on writers like Peter Kerry, James Quinn, Lindsay Williams, Dave Simpson and Diane Whitley, plus proven directors like Roger Haines and actors who audiences might have seen on TV, to follow their hearts with a half-dozen short new plays, each lasting about 15 minutes in an indisputably intimate venue.
That first JB Shorts in March 2009 was meant to be a one-off event but the chance to try out ideas and produce new and exciting work proved so popular with audiences and creatives alike that JB Shorts has continued to grow year after year. Not long ago, the show moved from Joshua Brooks (which was starting to prove too funky even for these adventurous souls) to its current home at 53two. Despite a few changes of production personnel (and the arrival of a friendly whippet to give arriving guests the once-over), it retains essentially the same format, which definitely ain’t broke.
On my way in, I’d been warned not to expect proceedings to be as funny as usual and that seemed to be the case with the relatively sombre tone of the opening two plays. Ella Greenhill’s Chippy Tea saw two of life’s walking wounded, albeit from opposite ends of the age spectrum, Jimmy (David Carpenter) and Cam (Marie Critchley), unexpectedly finding much in common as they keep meeting outside the local chippy, while Diane Whitley’s Death By Misadventure turned into a deeply-moving tale of familial love and loyalty as siblings Eddie (Haydn Holden) and his autistic sister Pamela (Susan McArdle) met up after the death of their mother.
There were, though, plenty of laughs and more unexpected developments to be had in Peter Bowker’s The Before And The After with Rosina Carbone outstanding as Julie, the sharp-witted cancer nurse, and William Fox as her patient Paul, literally shackled to his grumpy police escort Andy (Liam Grunshaw). Following the break, Unamerican, written by JB stalwarts James Quinn and Peter Kerry, found Quinn giving his American accent an outing as Jim, a blacklist victim in McCarthy-era Hollywood, trying to team up with younger writer Nancy (Charlotte Linighan) despite the constant interruptions of apparently star-struck barman Alex (Will Huntington). Ambitiously, Lindsay Williams’ What’s Your Poison added original music from Carol Donaldson to a tale based on a 1900s scandal involving ale poisoned by arsenic, then, just for good measure, included harmony singing from a cast including Joan Kempson as pub owner Maudie, Winnie Southgate as bereft widow Clara, Ben Sherlock as the dangerously thirsty Ben, and Sean Chriscole as scheming and unapologetic brewery rep Nathaniel, plus award-winning Kieran Cunningham as, simply, ‘Musician.’ Perfectly formed as this was, an expanded version would not be unwelcome.
The evening’s final piece, Jayshree Patel’s Conscious Uncoupling, circled back around to what seemed to be the evening’s leitmotif of love, in its many and various forms, going awry as two quite different couples Frankie (Gabriella Tavini) and Ben (Dan Sheader) and Mollie (Keeley Fitzgerald) and Ash (David Tag) contemplate marriage or divorce.
All in all, another energetic, provocative and entertaining evening from one of Manchester’s most valuable and encouraging new(ish) theatre institutions.
All photos, including the main image: credit Pull Focus Productions
JB Shorts is on until October 14, 2023. For more information, click here.