JB Shorts 23

Ella Greenhill, Diane Whitley, Peter Bowker, James Quinn, Peter Kerry, Lindsay Williams, Carol Donaldson (composer), Jayshee Patel
Reallife Theatre Company & 53two

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JB Shorts 23
William Fox as Paul, Rosina Carbone as Julie and Liam Grunshaw as Andy in The Before & The After Credit: Pull Focus Productions
Haydn Holden as Eddie and Susan McArdle as Pamela in Death by Misadventure Credit: Pull Focus Productions
Charlotte Linighan as Nancy, Will Huntington as Alex and James Quinn as Jim in Unamerican Credit: Pull Focus Productions
David Tag as Ash and Keeley Fitzgerald as Mollie in Conscious Uncoupling Credit: Pull Focus Productions

Two Manchester new writing institutions had their press performances on the same night: at Contact, Vignettes is up to its fifth incarnation, whereas across town at 53two, JB Shorts has reached number 23. One writer even has a piece in each production.

While Vignettes focusses on women's writing, the concept behind JB has always been to bring writers more familiar with TV and radio into the theatre, although some have been part of this biannual project since the start. One notable difference this time is that there aren't any broad comedies, although there is humour in a few of them.

This edition opens with Chippy Tea by Ella Greenhill, directed by Reuben Johnson, set outside a chip shop where Cam (Marie Critchley), a divorcee with a grown-up daughter, goes regularly and Jimmy (David Carpenter), who appears to be quite young by his broad physicality, hangs around outside. After initial suspicion, they strike up an unlikely friendship in which she tells him about her broken relationship with her daughter and he talks about his anger issues and his abusive stepfather, which produces some touching moments.

Diane Whitley's Death by Misadventure, directed by Alice Bartlett, is set in the room where Pamela (Susan McArdle) and Eddie's (Haydn Holden) mother recently died, but Pamela hasn't got round to tidying it up when Eddie visits. We learn that she is autistic, a 'vulnerable adult', and was a carer for her mother, and that Eddie, who lives away and has a family, hasn't visited for a long time. He tells her she should have told him how bad things were and that she needed help, but she focusses on her jigsaw to shut everything out. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who guessed what her big secret was even before she said there was one, but it seemed to take a long time to get there. There is some lovely playing by both actors and a great set-up, and with some ruthless editing I think it would have a much bigger impact.

Peter Bowker's The Before & The After, directed by Cherylee Houston, promises comedy from the outset, with a backdrop of a film of hospital corridors and nurse Julie (Rosina Carbone) asking the audience which of us is here for the erectile disfunction clinic, but there is a bit more to it. Andy (Liam Grunshaw) is in uniform handcuffed to Paul (William Fox), imprisoned in Strangeways as a climate change protester, who is having his catheter removed after prostate cancer surgery. Julie and Andy are both wisecrackers in different ways and it seems they may have a history, but it all ends in a group therapy session where the apparent strongest shows he is the most vulnerable. Very strong performances all round deliver well this comedy with heart and a message.

Following the interval, two JB veterans, James Quinn and Peter Kerry, have co-written Unamerican, directed by Janine Waters, which is very different from the broad comedy that Quinn usually contributes. Quinn himself is Jim, a struggling screenwriter in the days of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Hollywood blacklist. He is meeting with Nancy (Charlotte Linighan), a young writer trying to make it in the business, in a coffee shop where they think they won't be disturbed. However, they are served by out-of-work English actor Alex (Will Huntington) who "can't help overhearing" and butting in, but also keeps making mysterious phone calls. There isn't much to the story and the situation is familiar, but it fits the format well.

What's Your Poison by Lindsay Williams, directed by Sally Carman, is actually a musical, with music by Carol Donaldson, with a historical setting. Kieran Cunningham provides the musical backing on acoustic guitar. There has apparently been contamination of the beer stocks and some people have died, including Clara's (Winnie Southgate) husband, and so William (Ben Sherlock) is drinking lemonade in Maudie's (Joan Kempson) pub until the ale is confirmed to be safe. Nathaniel (Sean Chriscole) has been sent by the brewery to check it, but is he just saying it is unsafe to sell her more beer at inflated prices? There isn't really enough time to put across the facts of a real incident that isn't well-known, but it is an impressive piece with songs that sound terrific and would perhaps have been a better one to close the night.

The actual closer is Conscious Uncoupling by Jayshree Patel, directed by Rupert Hill, set in two different bedrooms. In one, Ben (Dan Sheader) and Frankie (Gabriella Tahini) collapse passionately onto the bed, while in the other, Ash (David Tag) and Mollie (Keeley Fitzgerald) seem, at best, indifferent to one another. There is talk of a uni reunion and a wedding, but the background is a little vague. Frankie reads Ben's "book of sexual experience" in which he makes notes on past conquests, but their coupling is just a one-off, whereas Ash and Mollie are planning something more permanent. This piece feels like it needs a bit more to it and a stronger ending, especially as the evening's finale.

While there's nothing in this batch to have you rolling in the aisles, there is still some comedy, music, social comment, family and relationship drama and even a bit of politics—albeit 1950s American politics—so, as always, something to appeal to most audiences in the welcoming atmosphere of 53two.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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