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JB Shorts

Ella Greenhill, Diane Whitley, Peter Bowker, James Quinn & Peter Kerry, Lindsay Williams, Jayshree Patel JB Shorts, Award-Winning Writers & Familiar Faces 53two, Watson Street, Manchester October 3-October 14, 2023; 2hr 15 min

Scenes from some of this year's JB Shorts productions. Here: Joan Kempson in What's Your Poison
Scenes from some of this year's JB Shorts productions. Here: Joan Kempson in What's Your Poison

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Proper plays, six little one-act gems with top notch actors and the most enthusiastic of audiences – what’s not to love? There’s something deeply satisfying about a back-to-basics evening of beautifully written and performed short plays. This is all new writing, but underpinned with so much experience one feels cocooned in some kind of theatrical amniotic fluid, absolutely certain that no-one is going to let you down. JB Shorts (named for the original venue, the basement of the Joshua Brooks pub) is a biannual festival that has writers, directors and actors queuing up to take part.

Guest writers are invited to join the team for each production and there is a waiting list for future shows. More than 1,200 actors were put up for roles this year, and 2023’s team of master theatrical craftspeople includes a BAFTA-winning writer and others from award-winning shows. All the writers have top TV and stage shows in their CVs while the actors match them scene-for-scene across stage, TV screen and radio. The evening begins with a riff on age, abuse, body dysmorphia – and chips. Chippy Tea, by Ella Greeenhill has a middle-aged woman brought up short by the innocent wisdom of a young boy who sees past the violence of his own home to help her focus on her own family. Death by Misadventure, by Diane Whitley, exposes the “you could have, I should have” traumas of a brother and sister dealing with the death of their invalid mother. The Before and the After is by Peter Bowker, winner of three BAFTAs, three Writers Guild Awards and three Royal Television Society awards – and it shows. A handcuffed prisoner attends a prostate cancer clinic to have a catheter removed, triggering razor-sharp observations of exactly how you would expect the stereotypically empathy-free guard to behave. But then he and the nurse awkwardly acknowledge their past relationship, masks slip and the balance shifts. Rosina Carbone as nurse Julie does a sterling stand-up turn as she opens the clinic, searching the audience/waiting room for patients for the erectile disfunction clinic: “You, sir? No? Well, your wife’s nodding and you’re shaking your head, but it’s up to you…” After the interval comes Unamerican by James Quinn, who also plays the washed-up Hollywood scriptwriter, and Peter Kerry, one of JB Shorts’ founding writers. A thought-provoking take on the rise and fall of careers in misogyny-ridden Tinseltown during the McCarthy era, this also includes a sharply ironic debate on the status of soaps, still on-going today. What’s Your Poison by Lindsay Williams with composer Carol Donaldson, is based on a true event which had passed me by – the 1900 poisoning of more than 6,000 people, with 70 dead, by arsenic-contaminated beer distributed mostly in the Manchester area. While the landlady (a fine performance from Joan Kempson) is a blameless victim here, there are inevitable echoes of Sweeney Todd in this bitter-sweet comedic mini-musical. Conscious Uncoupling, by Jayshree Patel, brings the evening to an end with a stark spotlight on love-hate relationships. A divorcing couple who can’t keep their hands off each other shed clothes and inhibitions on one side of the stage, while on the other a bride and groom on the eve of their wedding display the kind of mutual dislike usually reserved for long-marrieds even before the inevitable “it was only the once and didn’t mean anything” line appears. JB Shorts feels like a mini Edinburgh Festival, with all the excitement of the new but none of the risk of the downright terrible.

I have no idea why I have never been before, but it is now as firmly on my “cultural calendar” as it is Manchester’s.

More info and tickets here


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