JB Shorts 6
Joshua Brooks, Manchester
In a cellar under a pub round the back of the old BBC Manchester building, Reallife Theatre is presenting its sixth season of brand new plays from writers who are mostly fairly new to the stage but have a lot of experience of writing for the small screen, particularly on the soaps.
Opening the programme of six plays is Animal Companions from stage writer Trevor Suthers, directed by Monkeywood Theatre's Martin Gibbons, in which the audience is separated from the stage by chicken wire and referred to by the cast as though they are animals in a sanctuary being selected as pets by a couple (Emma Laidlaw and Wayne Allsop), advised by Meriel Scholfield as the head of the sanctuary. While there are some funny observations on human behaviour and the way the audience is included as a character in the play works well, it is really just a comedy sketch stretched thinly over fifteen minutes and the joke starts to become a little laboured quite soon.
Triptych from Emmerdale writer Peter Kerry, directed by North West Playwrights director Chris Bridgman, cleverly presents us with three scenes in reverse chronology, starting with Jill (Rachel McGuinness) complaining to official-looking Chris (Richard Hand) that he hasn't kept to the deal over the confession she has extracted from alleged war criminal Danilo (Russell Richardson) and as a result she may go to prison. There are some interesting issues debated over the motivation behind genocide, popular TV presenters being taken more seriously than reporters who take risks to expose important news, whether some people's actions make them deserving of death... but it all proves rather too much for the short play format and so it comes across as great potential that isn't quite finished off.
Lindsay Williams, who has recently moved from being a writer on Emmerdale to a storywriter on EastEnders, puts us inside a building after it has collapsed trapping politician Emmanuel and office cleaner Marie under the rubble in Aftershock directed by Miranda Parker. This gives a perfect setting for Marie to question Emmanuel's motivations as a politician that now seem to be self-serving when years ago he stood in front of a bulldozer to try to save people's homes. In this tight and enthralling—and very well-performed—piece, the politician is given an opportunity to regain his original motivation for going into politics, but will he take it?
Coronation Street writer Debbie Oats has a cast including Street actors Robert Beck (Jimmy) and Katy Cavanagh (Julie Carp) plus Esther Shelmerdine in Weeds directed by JB Shorts virgin Chris Jupe. The setting appears to be a residents' association meeting between bossy Pauline (Cavanagh), web designer Andrew (Beck) and Greenpeace supporter Ellie (Shelmerdine) where the main issue is clearing the weeds that used to be sorted out by the old man in the downstairs flat. It is lively, pacy and often funny, but the abstract movement and mixed-up dialogue in parts can be a little confusing.
Television and radio writer Christopher Reason's Error 404, directed by Alice Bartlett, puts TV writer Chris (Murray Taylor) into a support group for female victims of domestic violence run by Annie (Karen Henthorn) to research his script as he says he can get inside the heads of the abused but not the abusers and needs to know why they do it. While Chris seems to want to explain away the violent tendencies, Annie is unable to be drawn any further than to say these are simply men who react with violence. While it is a fascinating debate up to a point, the arguments become circular and it starts to come to an obvious ending, before another ending is tacked on that serves only to dissipate the tension and emotion of the piece.
Finally, actor James Quinn stars in his own play Don't Take This The Wrong Way directed by former Octagon artistic director Mark Babych, who somehow manipulates a cast of six on this tiny stage. Quinn is Mervin, the father of Lucy (Natasha McClure) who is about to join with much-older Harriot (Marie Critchley) in a same-sex marriage, and Mervin and his wife Olivia (Susan Twist) are being very cool and middle-class about the whole thing. That is until wedding planner Mark (John Catterall) sows doubts in Mervin's mind, and he swaps his pink champagne for lager with a whisky chaser as his voice deepens and becomes more northern. Nuala doesn't improve things by using Nelson Mandela's speech from when he was released from prison as her "best man's" speech. This play deals with some similar issues to the last regarding male roles but in a much lighter way that is fast-moving and funny.
These are works that appear to be at different stages of development from people who write for a living, directed and performed to a very good standard by professionals and with very slick stage management to keep the whole evening moving. None is bad and all have good and less-good points, but with such a varied programme in terms of tone and subject matter there is something to appeal to all. There is, however, the same problem as at some 24:7 venues where the seats are far too close together to be able to sit comfortably for any length of time, however well you know your neighbour.
But at £6 for six well-performed pieces of entertaining theatre that is all over by just after nine o'clock ending with James Quinn and Susan Twist drunkenly pole dancing, what more could you ask for?
Running to to 22 October
Reviewer: David Chadderton