JB Shorts 13
Catherine Hayes, Trevor Suthers, Chris Thompson, Diane Whitley, Nick Ahad, Dave Simpson
Reallife Theatre Company
Joshua Brooks, Manchester
The latest JB programme of brand new short plays takes in a few issues currently high on the political agenda, particularly a month before a General Election, showing that theatre, particularly fringe theatre, can react to current events more quickly than most other art forms.
The opening piece is Talktalk by Catherine Hayes, directed by Liz Stevenson, which initially looks like a strange one-on-one lesson in which Mathilda (Sheila Jones) covers a wide range of subjects with reluctant student Ellie (Jennifer Hulman) from pre-decimal currency to post code regions. However this isn't a lesson but an unusual job interview.
There is an interesting idea at the heart of this piece, but it is rather too slight even to stretch to fifteen minutes.
In Karaoke Cara by Trevor Suthers, directed by Barry Evans, rich boy Michael (Bill Bradshaw) is disgusted that his widowed father, who has headed multi-national companies, has started seeing Cara (Denice Hope), a mere shopworker and part-time karaoke singer, so gets his friend Jeremy (Aaron Cobham) to help him speak to her under a pretext.
The story and the bombshell that Cara drops on snobbish Michael at the end work well, but it's hard to see what the boys were intending with their plan and some of the potential subtleties in the script and characterisation are lost behind over-the-top comedy posh accents that keep slipping.
Number three, Safe In Our Hands by Chris Thompson, directed by Alyx Tole, is the first in which both script and production look polished and very well-rehearsed. Bunyan (Ralph Casson) is in the midst of giving an employee a dressing-down by 'phone when he starts getting pains in his chest and begins to hallucinate.
His dead mother Bev, in a wonderful performance by Joyce Branagh, materialises to tell him that he has "turned into a right twat", but this is not just a Dickens rip-off about social responsibility—it is a polemic about saving the NHS, and a very funny one. There are three ghosts, of course, including Bullingdon (Jack Dearsley), who offers to sell bits of the NHS to Bunyan, and millionaire entrepreneur Branston (Ethan Holmes) in a Virgin stewardess uniform who offers him private health insurance.
It isn't subtle or entirely original, but it's entertaining and makes its point quite well.
Diane Whitley's Illusion, directed by Alice Bartlett, brings us back after the interval with a magic show, but not one staged with a thrust stage in mind—the trick with the audience member and the match got a good reaction from some spectators but I could only see the performer's back, even from the front row.
But this is just a curtain raiser for great little Victorian mystery about magician Mafeking's (James Lewis) strange disappearance during his show—more accurately his failure to reappear. Archie arranges a séance to contact him, but it is just a ruse to prove all mediums are fakes. Also at the séance are doctor Velda (Vanessa Hehir), Mafeking's wife Daisy (Emma Laidlaw), Daisy's lover Ned (Alex Phelps) and magician's assistant Peter (Joe Slack).
The extensively titled A Muslim, a Jew and a Christian Walk Into a Room by Nick Ahad, directed by Max Shuell, sounds like the start of a gag on The Comedians in the 1970s, but it actually takes us to a future in which religion has been banned because it is considered to be the cause of all wars, but the penalties for practising religion are as severe as some of the atrocities previously committed in its name.
The title characters, Jewish David (Garry Hayden), Muslim Quadir (Kamal Kaan) and Christian James (Murray Taylor), come together into a pub cellar to pray at great risk to their safety. However one of them is not what he seems...
It's a nice little idea, but the big revelation comes too early in the piece so the ending becomes quite drawn-out with repetitive arguments about the value of religion.
JB often ends with a comic romp that doesn't quite work, but Dave Simpson's Coalition Nightmare, directed by JB stalwart James Quinn, comes together perfectly with a polished script, tight direction and three superb performances.
We are in the UKIP policy hub after next month's election when, after some surprise gains by the anti-everything party and a change in Lib Dem leadership to Vince Cable who prefers to cling to his principles than to power, it is UKIP who may enter into a coalition to tip the balance for one of the major parties.
David Crellin is wonderful as Jack, who is continually on the 'phone to "Nigel", with great support from John Caterall as Ted and interruptions from news anchor Charlotte (Jenny May Morgan) in a very funny and well-observed piece.
As always, JB Shorts is well worth a visit, but this time it has more topical, political material than usual, which is fitting for the current time. There is a clear bias to the left, but what do you expect in a pub cellar in a city that has had a strong radical tradition for centuries?
Reviewer: David Chadderton