This twice-yearly festival of short plays for the theatre – by writers who make their living from television soaps and dramas – is now in its tenth incarnation and gets better and better. JB Shorts is named after the Joshua Brooks pub across the road from the old BBC headquarters in Manchester which produced much of seminal radio drama of the last century. There must be something in the air there.
For writers who are veterans of Coronation Street, Emmerdale and EastEnders the festival of six 15-minute playlets in a pub basement offers the chance to be bolder in their drama and more outrageous in their humour. They seize the opportunity with relish.
Lisa Holdsworth, currently writing for Midsomer Murders, offers Big Game, a tale of student shagging which twists through a maze of new sexual morality. A rugby student is dared by his mates to bed the ugliest girl in the bar and then posts pictures of her naked on Facebook as proof of his conquest. Amy Drake is both vulnerable and ferocious as the wronged woman. But Stephen Hoyle's cocky conqueror has some surprisingly interesting lines which slaloms the sympathies of the audience. Interesting writing.
At the other end of the scale is Dave Simpson’s Blind Date 2. Simpson characteristically oscillates between laugh-aloud comedy and palpable sentimentality which here achieve a nice balance in the tale of two no-hopers, both dumped on blind dates, who get together. The vignette offers Susan Mcardle, as a hyper giggler, and Will Travis, as a gauche joker, scope for a deal of silly business which is both very funny and rather poignant. Simpson really hits his stride here.
The classiest piece of the evening is Peter Kerry’s Icarus Descending about a fictional meeting between Mozart and Beethoven in Vienna in 1787. Director Malcolm Raeburn burnishes really polished performances from Phil Minns as a peevish Amadeus confronted by the arrogant self-assurance of the younger man played by Haydn Holden with a Prussian precision (I know he was a Rhinelander really). Kate Coogan is beautifully cool and understated as Wolfie’s wife Constanza.
There are gems elsewhere. Special Relationship by James Quinn looks like a mini-drama about a couple-breaking up but morphs into a satirical political allegory in which it becomes clear that the couple stand for Britain and the United States in the post-Iraq War world. There is some clever writing and several good gags in a sketch which stretches the 15-minute formula as far as it will go.
Relate by Diane Whitley (a children’s tv writer) offers a great vehicle for some fine acting from Melissa Sinden as a wife who forces her husband to marriage guidance to discover he is bisexual. And there are amusing moments in the slight opening piece What a Performance by Trevor Suthers. It adds up to an evening of huge variety, pace, brave writing and a lot of laughs. JB Shorts is becoming a salient feature on the Manchester theatre landscape.