Manchester Theatre Awards

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JB Shorts 17

Helen Farrall; James and Aileen Quinn; Peter Kerry; Ian Kershaw; Nick Ahad; Dave Simpson and Diane Whitley
Reallife Theatre Company
53Two, Albion Street, Manchester
16 May 2017 to 27 May 2017

Over the years JB Shorts has become a much loved and valued institution on the theatrical scene in Manchester and, believe me, I intend no insult, just the opposite, when I say that. Beyond recently moving to a new home, the formula has remained pretty much the same throughout – local writers, often having achieved fame in TV or radio writing, work with local directors and actors on a new short (15 minutes or so) script, then six of them are presented in a fairly no-nonsense way over the course of an evening. If it ain’t broke, they say, don’t fix it, and the biggest problem the series has sometimes had has been coping with demand, especially in their previous home underneath the student-orientated bar at Joshua Brooks. 53Two, in the old Bauer Millet showroom off Deansgate, is, it has to be said, a rather more salubrious venue and every time I visit the place, it seems to work better than the time before, allowing for the occasional extraneous noises from having a car park next door and a major thoroughfare just outside.

But, with an audience often peppered with the area’s theatrical folk, these tend to be relaxed, convivial, and forgiving affairs. Not that the acting or scripts needed much forgiving in this seventeenth incarnation.

In the past, there have been suggestions that the evening can sometimes feel like a succession of comedy sketches, but there seemed a notably serious intent, at least in subject matter, to the first half of this evening. ‘Turn Around When Possible’ (written by Helan Farrall, directed by Craig Sanders) did initially look as if it was indeed going to be a straight comedy sketch, with Gemma (Alexandra Maxwell) and Kev (Gareth Bennett) stranded on a country road on their way to celebrate her birthday, only to find their bickering interrupted by the arrival of Kev’s boss, Melissa (Julia Walsh). But it turned into a sensitive look at issues around childlessness and IVF. The next, ‘Living The Dream’ (written by Aileen and James Quinn, directed by Martha Simon), raised the stakes even higher, tackling the parlous state of politics in the contemporary world through the delusional Sam (Adam Jowett) and his plain-speaking nurse Rosa (Sandra Cole), while ‘Pretty Pimpin’ (written by Peter Kerry, directed by Chris Honer) addressed loss and regret through the unlikely prism of pretentious academic Richard (the multi-tasking James Quinn), his daughter Janet (Alice Proctor) and agent Vicky (Victoria Scowcroft), debating his choices for ‘Desert Island Discs’! All three pieces skilfully balanced humour with thought-provoking material in a manner that actually gained from their relatively short time on stage.

After the interval, things took on a more obviously comedic note. ‘Keep Breathing’ (written by Ian Kershaw, directed by Joyce Branagh) found the perkily terrifying Carly (Amy Drake) teaching a “Spin Hacienda” class, while she slowly revealed the way her life and her relationship with boyfriend Matt (Ethan Holmes) was actually going down the drain. The perils of modern relationships also inform ‘Inside Voices’ (written by Nick Ahad, directed by George Want). Reshma (Perveen Hussain) and Bob (Adam Rickitt) are on a first date in a nightclub, but the already difficult circumstances are exacerbated not only by their ever-present Egos (Sara Latiff and Leon Tagoe) but also by the long-suffering waitress Emma (Steph Reynolds) and her own hilariously foul-mouthed Ego (Amy Lythgoe). Ending the evening on a high, ahem, is ‘Pot Plant’ (written by Dave Simpson and Diane Whitley, directed by Alice Bartlett). Elderly couple Iris (Jenny Gregson) and Brian (Stephen Aintree) are peacefully having a late night chat when a policeman (Simon Naylor) bursts in and it’s revealed that this loveable old couple are major drug dealers – or are they?

If you fancy a winning combination of punchy new writing, excellent acting, quite a few laughs and the chance to watch some well-known theatrical faces letting their hair down a bit, then JB Shorts 17 is the place to be. Long may they run.

Reviewer: Kevin Bourke