JB Shorts 22

Peter Kerry, James Quinn, Zoe Iqbal, Steph Lacey, Trevor Suthers, Dave Simpson, Cathy Crabb
Reallife Theatre Company & 53two

Five Women, Rambling: Nicola Gardner, Julie Edwards, Lynn Roden, Christine Mackie and Kerry Willison-Parry
I Want My Britain Back: Krissi Bohn and Rachael Gill-Davis
The Final Nail in the Coffin: Victoria Oxley, John Joyce-O'Keeffe and Billy Doherty
The Look Department: Jordan Tweddle, Jade Golding and Caroline Chesworth

A Manchester fringe institution, previously biannual, is back after a hiatus of more than three years, in a new venue but with the same format and a lot of the same writers—and it would seem, from the packed, enthusiastic house on press night, that this is a welcome return.

As always, your ticket price of £11 (plus the dreaded 'booking fee') gets you six plays of around 15 minutes in length from different writers, directors and casts, so it's pretty good value for a night out. The concept has always been to include pieces by writers more familiar to broadcast than to stage, but a few now have had quite a bit of experience writing for the theatre, even if for some it is just several years writing for JB.

The evening opens with I Want My Britain Back, co-written by James Quinn and Zoe Iqbal and directed by Miranda Parker. Somewhere in a government building, Krissi Bohn plays a Tory government minister, a daughter of immigrant parents, who has implemented a harsh immigration policy involving deportation to Rwanda—purely fictional, of course. Rachael Gill-Davis's character has a large Twitter following and has allowed her child to choose their own gender, so clearly from a different political sphere. They are kept in this room by security while an angry mob gathers outside, debating what it is that 'real people' actually want from government.

While both sides put across their views, the Secretary of State is portrayed as pompous and out of touch, while the other comes across as calmly reasoned, so there is no pretence of balance. While plenty of issues and buzzwords come up ("diversity", "woke", "liberal elite", "virtue signalling", "fuck the experts"), there is no exploration of any of this so it's more of a rallying cry than food for thought. I'm not sure whether the ending meant that the Minister was won over by the arguments or had just adopted her opponent's words to sound caring.

Steph Lacey performs in her own play, To Be A Slut, directed by Lily Levin. It opens with a far-too-long drunken karaoke performance by her and Stanley Rawlings, made painful through the very harsh PA system (the speakers seem to be backstage somewhere, so everything sounds like it is coming from another room), but the actual play opens the night after, when they wake up together on his sofa, and he discovers that he has spent the night with a wheelchair user.

The play deals with some of the misconceptions about disabled people and their problems (steps and stairs for one-night stands being a particular issue for her) with lots of humour. When his wife returns (Anna Swan), he gets away with it as she doesn't believe he could possibly have had sex with this girl. Great performances, especially from the writer, and a hint at a happier ending—possibly a sequel—make this an entertaining and hopeful piece.

The Look Department by Trevor Suthers, directed by Ellie Rose, takes us into the decision-making process following job interviews as Jade Golding, Caroline Chesworth and Jordan Tweddle try to pick between three candidates, arguing over whether physical attractiveness is important to the job. It is a slight piece with a sudden ending but has some good laughs in it.

After the Interval, Dave Simpson's The Final Nail in the Coffin, directed by James Quinn, sees Billy Doherty bringing home to his partner, Victoria Oxley, someone he has just kidnapped on Lidl's car park; he says it is a leading public figure but he has a shopping bag over his head. Eventually, the kidnap victim is revealed both to be and not to be the the person he named (played by John Joyce-O'Keeffe). The play is satirical in that it raises some recent political scandals, but there is no political debate, only some silly comedy that works pretty well. Domonique Ward provides inserts as a TV reporter outside 10 Downing Street.

In a switch to the programme's playing order, Peter Kerry's Recording History, directed by Sushil Chudasama, comes next, not last. Nadia Watson, Alexander McGonagle and Wendy Albiston are three undergraduates working as extras on a TV historical drama. The first is a posh girl studying history who looks down on this line of work and keeps mentioning historical inaccuracies; the second is trying to make it as a performer; the third is a mature student who wants to be a journalist but whose assistant on the student web site keeps putting up a paragraph that might get her 'cancelled' on Twitter before her career has begun. All are seeking to be noticed by someone. This piece is entertaining enough but a bit unfocussed in what it's really trying to say.

The evening ends on a high note with Cathy Crabb's Five Women, Rambling, directed by Cherylee Houston. Where some of the other pieces feel like they could have done with the services of a good script editor, this one has a subtleness and a lightness of touch, not to mention wonderfully tight ensemble playing, that puts it in a different class—plus it has five decent parts for older women.

The title tells you the basic set-up: a group of retired nurses—played by Nicola Gardner, Christine Mackie, Lynn Roden, Julie Edwards and Kerry Willison-Parry—have a trip up to Dovestones Reservoir for a reunion. As far as story goes, that's about it, but there are little squabbles, anecdotes and hints at sadnesses in their lives that make it feel authentic but never overdone. The women constantly talk over one another, making it seem partly improvised, but the director keeps a tight rein on proceedings so the important messages still come across. It's impossible not to warm to both the characters and this short play, and I'd certainly like to see more from this Crabb-Houston partnership.

Welcome back to JB for another varied night of entertainment. I'm already looking forward to number 23.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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