JB Shorts 19
Dave Simpson, Trevor Suthers, Ben Tagoe, Joe Ainsworth, James Quinn, Peter Kerry and Lindsay Williams
Reallife Theatre Company
JB is back, following its Stage Door Foundation prize at this year's Manchester Theatre Awards, with another selection of six new stage plays by TV writers. I've said before that the ones that stay within the 15-minute guideline work best in this format, and the same is true here—I mean, if you can do the whole of War and Peace in fifteen minutes... But I'm jumping ahead.
The evening kicks off with I've Tried It Once by JB veteran Dave Simpson, directed by Alice Bartlett. The title is a common refrain from Audrey's (Victoria Scowcroft) husband Godfrey (Shaun Hennessy), who has just died as the play begins. The play is almost a monologue in which Audrey jumps back to when she met shy Godfrey, through their tentative courting and marriage, and his reaction to all new experiences that he's tried it once and doesn't need to do it again—including sex.
The play has a great deal of charm and humour, but it really is two plays: one that leads up to Godfrey's death and a startling revelation, and another about a sexually frustrated widow trying to discover what she's missed. Both halves are well-written, but as a single play it is too long and the balance of the structure doesn't quite work.
One of Our Boys by Trevor Suthers, directed by Kate Coogan, is set in a pub where Laura (Sasha Corfield) is planning a homecoming for her boyfriend, about to return from an overseas tour in the armed forces, with her friends Sharon (Liz Carney) and Sian (Martelle Edinburgh). However Steve (Keaton Tyler Lansley) returns early and on crutches, is extremely hostile to them all and even denies that he was ever in a relationship with Sharon.
There are some really powerful moments in this interesting piece, but it does sometimes lapse into soap opera-style confessional dialogue and the logic of the plot doesn't always quite work.
Our Club by Ben Tagoe takes us into the interval, directed by Chris Lawson, in which a couple of scallies, Emma (Sonia Ibrahim) and Stig (Paul (William) Fox) break into the offices of their favourite football club to demand answers from Caroline (Sandra Cole) over the recent club takeover—although they aren't too clear on what the questions are.
There are some genuinely funny lines and Fox creates a great comic character, but the script has a tendency to always go for the gag even if it takes us away from the plot. As a consequence, the story doesn't really get going until Stig leaves to get fish and chips and the two women start to talk more seriously.
If the first half has plays that show promise, the second half offers three pieces that look much more accomplished and complete.
Kicking off after the interval, The Stretch by Joe Ainsworth, directed by Simon Naylor, sees Lee (James Lewis) sentenced to a spell in prison for... well, we don't find that out till much later. Starting off as the cocky new boy with hope for an appeal, he gradually becomes institutionalised, building a place for himself in the prison community.
This is a very well-written monologue entirely in rhyming verse, but there are also some lovely touches to the staging. The prison officer (David Howell) has no dialogue but encourages him like a boxing coach between scenes while, continuing the boxing theme, his girlfriend walks round with a board to announce the number of years he's been inside, each time with less enthusiasm and more clothes. There's also a neat circularity to the plot, as a new, cocky inmate comes to take his place when he leaves.
Another play that ends with similar circular neatness is James Quinn's Equivalent, directed by Chris Honer. Quinn plays Pickering, sat with Meriel Schofield as Shirley waiting for Gottlieb (yep, you guessed it: he doesn't turn up), their colleague with the van, after robbing the Tate Modern. Shirley is a lover of twentieth century art, regarding Pickering as a philistine, as he refers to the artworks in purely practical, literal terms, especially her beloved Equivalent VIII by Carl Andre which he refers to—accurately—as "a pile of bricks".
With two perfectly measured performances—especially Schofield whose comic delivery is outstanding, especially in her rant about Classic FM—this is a lovely little piece that is exactly as long as it needs to be to sustain its simple idea.
Finally, the much-anticipated sequel to the 15-minute Wuthering Heights in JB Shorts 16 from the same writers and director is War and Peace by Peter Kerry and Lindsay Williams, directed by Joyce Branagh. Tolstoy (Robin Simpson) takes the finished manuscript to his editor (Lucie Browne) who wants a summary of the plot but she is seeing Dostoyevsky in fifteen minutes.
The pair along with Amy Drake, Emily Spowage, Rob Mallard and Alex Phelps plus some audience participation (at one point a top hat was put on my head so I could die as someone's father—don't ask me whose), play multiple characters in a riotous, slapstick telling of one of Russia's greatest novels. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense (it's a long while since I read the original) but it's great fun, performed with exhausting energy by a cast that only just fits on the stage and a perfect way to send the audience back into the bar.
It's still only £8 a ticket for all of this entertainment, if you can get a ticket, and I believe you can still get a pie and a pint for a fiver—why wouldn't you?