JB Shorts’ hugely popular formula of ‘six 15-minute plays by top TV writers’ has been attracting thousands of Manchester theatregoers to the basement of Joshua Brooks since 2009.
Lately, though, they had become a bit of a victim of their own success and you’ve had to be increasingly quick off the mark to snag tickets for the shows in the, erm, intimate and funky space below the student drinking den.
For their 16th show, though, they’ve moved lock, stock and barrel to the new arts hub 53two – it’s just off Deansgate and was formerly the iconic Bauer Millett luxury car showroom. So iconic is the space, in fact, that, quite unprompted by me, I found myself only a few days ago talking about it to a blues musician at a festival near the North Pole. You really wouldn’t dare make this stuff up, would you?
It’s an indisputably exciting and sensible development, given that the theatre space there offers much of the underground atmosphere of their 15shows over the past seven years but in a larger and more adaptable area with a greater seating capacity, improved sight lines and fewer flying creatures buzzing around the stage lights. 53two founder Simon Naylor points out that “having such a ‘Manchester-centric’ event at 53two is incredible. It’s exactly the sort of theatre we wanted to promote and work with. Its history of bringing the best actors and writers to smaller stages has been extraordinary.”
Quite so, and the 16th JB Shorts is well up to the usual high standards. The evening kicks off promisingly with Magaluf, penned by Sarah McDonald Hughes and directed by Martin Gibbons, both of Manchester Theatre Award-winning Monkeywood Theatre. Chloe (Amy Lythgoe) and Sinead (Hollie-Jay Bowes) are teenagers on their first trip abroad to the titular resort. Inevitably, boozy high-jinks ensue but, as in much of McDonald Hughes’ work, darkness and hard lessons lurk not far from the laughter.
Trevor Suthers’ Toil And Trouble, directed by Sue Jenkins, is an ingenious and hilariously over-the-top riff on Macbeth, with Mammy (Maria O’Hare), Fanny (Jennifer Bray) and Granny (Jenny Gregson, who first played a witch in Macbeth at the Bolton Octagon in 1976) as three modern-day Mancunian witches pitting their potions against local government busybodies and such troublesome neighbours as foul-breathed local drug dealer MacMeth (Peter Ash). There’s more magical mischief in Dave Simpson’s Bowie-soundtracked In My Shoes, directed by Alyx Tole, which finds former lovers Carol (Judy Holt) and Peter (Murray Taylor) inexplicably switching bodies (and wigs, just about…) only to find themselves imparting some harsh truths to their respective, and patently unsuitable, new partners Linda (Jacqueline Leonard) and Richard (Sushil Chudasama).
After an interval which proved nearly as entertaining as the show itself as punters got to grips with the freshly-painted unisex loos, the second half opens with Justin Moorhouse’s tremendous A Grand Malaise And A Small Cappuccino, directed by Rupert Hill. Martin (Lee Toomes) is an apparently malingering claimant being quizzed by Angela (Rosina Carbone), an increasingly furious benefits inspector. But just who’s fooling who in this entertaining and observant short?
Also fighting the good fight against the craziness of modern life, James and Aileen Quinn’s Rebrand, directed by Megan Marie Griffith, finds three ad directors charged with rebranding the modern Army as sexy and dynamic characters who wouldn’t really hurt a fly, honestly. Horribly plausible madness ensues as shame-free veteran manipulators Geoff (Toby Hadoke) and Stephanie (Danielle Henry) jostle with clueless ‘millennial’ Emma (Amy Gavin) for the moral low ground.
But madness really breaks out in the final piece, with the self-explanatory title Wuthering Heights At Hurricane Speed in which writers Lindsay Williams and Peter Kerry merrily wreak havoc upon Emily Brontë’s Gothic classic. Joyce Branagh does a sterling job of keeping the mayhem just about in check as Cathy (Verity Henry) and Heathcliffe (Richard Weston) free-spirit themselves to death up on t’moors, to the consternation of faithful housemaid Nellie (Amy Drake), the confusion of Lockwood (Robin Simpson) and the considerable entertainment of an enthusiastically participating audience. It’s an unapologetically giddy, good-natured piece and a splendid way to conclude another terrific JB Shorts.
Good luck to them in their new home and long may they run.