Now in its 13th season, JB Shorts is firmly established as a cornerstone of Manchester’s independent theatre scene. As testament to this, in January JB Shorts was selected, along with others, as a representative of the fringe for Re:play Festival at HOME. But for those who are still in the dark, it is essentially a scratch night of six new short plays hosted at Joshua Brooks – hence ‘JB’ and ‘Shorts’.
I have previously attended small shows in the basement of Joshua Brooks but as I descended the stairs I was taken aback by the scale of the audience in this small club space. It was packed with a generous and enthusiastic crowd, which is great news for theatre in Manchester.
JB Shorts is author-led. Since 2009, a group of established TV writers have produced the scripts before finding directors and actors who can lift the words off of the page. For writers who are veterans of Coronation Street and Emmerdale, the festival offers a platform to be more dramatic, more outrageous and generally to write with greater freedom.
With this freedom, the offering becomes exceptionally varied – the six shorts tackle topics ranging from politics to murder, religion, health, work and social faux pas. Some fairly large topics to cover in snapshot shorts on a tiny stage in the basement of a pub.
Catherine Hayes began the evening with her duet Talktalk. We join Ellie (Jennifer Hulman) and Mathilda (Sheila Jones) in the middle of an absurd conversation about old money and postcodes, before the situation slowly reveals itself to be a job interview.
Trevor Suthers’ soap opera Karaoke Cara and Chris Thompson’s Safe in Our Hands made up the rest of the first half of the festival. Thompson’s Dickensian piece was the first to tackle politics. During a heart attack, Bunyan (Ralph Casson) is confronted by apparitions of the past, present and future. Somewhat inexplicably, all have designs upon the NHS, including his spectral mother. However, wrestling such large issues in 15 minutes of theatre inevitably leads to broad brush strokes, rather than meaningful investigations of complex political problems.
Diane Whitley’s Illusion is an absurdist Edwardian whodunnit about a magician’s disappearance. The cast were fittingly fun and big. However with six cast members, by far the largest, Illusion best demonstrated the limitations on all of the directors and performers when creating on such a restrictive stage.
Nick Ahad’s three-hander A Muslim, A Jew and A Christian Walk into a Room, explored a future dystopian utopia in which religion has been outlawed. The promising premise may benefit from further development and a little less exposition, but Garry Hayden should be commended for a strong performance in this dark tale.
But the pick of the bunch was Dave Simpson’s Coalition Nightmare, directed by James Quinn. Anticipating an outcome at the May 7 General Election in which Nigel Farage’s party UKIP holds the balance of power in a hung parliament, Simpson’s script was sharply satirical, like a more farcical The Thick of It. Much of the comedy came from John Catterall and David Crellin, who were entertaining and engaging as the absurd UKIP policy makers tasked with thinking the unthinkable, while Jenny May Morgan provided the straight-edged foil to their buffoonery.
It all added up to a well-attended evening of huge variety and entertainment. I had never previously attended a JB Shorts, but I’d heard many people tout it as the benchmark for fringe theatre in Manchester. Judging JB Shorts by this parameter of success is not fair because it does not seem to aspire to set any such benchmark for theatre. If the aim here is provide an opportunity for established TV writers to write without constraint, then JB Shorts is an entertaining and fun experimental ground for such writers. But it’s not a platform for pushing the potential of fringe theatre.
Photos by Brainne Edge
Top image: Coalition Nightmare
What: JB Shorts
Where: Joshua Brooks, Princess Street, Manchester
When: until April 25, 2015
More info: www.jbshorts.co.uk