The little festival of six playets known as JB Shorts is becoming something of a tradition in Manchester. This is the fourth year in which a group of writers and actors from TV soaps get together to do the kind of work that they wouldn't be allowed to do on the telly but which was what brought them into writing and acting in the first place. Denizens of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Coronation Street, Holby City, Casualty, Two Pints of Lager, Heartbeat produce two hours that are polished, poignant and provocative.
A Selfish Boy depicts the final conversation of a mother and son before she commits suicide. The writer, Chris Reason, who has 150 episodes of EastEnders under his belt, plays with layers of time interweaving the unknowing present with the poignancy of 30 years hindsight as the son – a young man but powerfully played by an actor in his fifties, James Quinn.
Likewise, Bill Taylor, a veteran of everything from Emmerdale to Sooty and Sweep. But in Touched he offers a thriller about a couple of con-merchants disposing of a body. It is a cross-section of a plot, which invites the audience to create a back-story and a next episode, in a way which would be deemed too inconsequential on the telly but that intrigues.
The most accomplished piece – with some beautifully observed touches in both writing and acting – came from one of Emmerdale's Bafta nominees Lindsay Williams. Waiting for Gaga wore its allusions to Godot lightly with five characters waiting through a 15-minute long technical hitch for Lady Gaga to appear on stage. Their desultory exchanges were less profound than Beckett but a good deal funnier.
Arthur Bostrom (Crabtree in 'Allo 'Allo!) was the pivot in Watching the Detectives, in which he played the delightfully arch butler to the head of ITV drama. This was more of a sketch than a play. But the writer, James Quinn, displayed a Fabergé delicacy in overlapping five different genres of TV detective, set in the ITV drama department, or what's left of it. It was a big in-joke but provoked the uproarious laughter. Dave Simpson's vaudeville Cock Tales, a male riposte to the Vagina Monologues, also provided much laugh-aloud material, with shameless willy gags interwoven with potent sentimentality about prostate cancer.
Strangely, the most powerful piece of the evening would have been at home on the box. Going to Extremes, by Lisa Holdsworth, brought together two characters from the fringes of a anti-racism demo. A white skinhead from Billericay and a shalwar-kameezed Asian from Bradford turned out to work in different regional offices of the same IT company. Holdsworth picked her way delicately through a culture wars minefield, avoiding most of the booby traps, to produce a thoughtful piece that articulated the skinhead position without endorsing it.
Each play lasts only 15 minutes. So even when experiments don't quite work they never go on too long. It's a fast and funny – and as it's in a pub you get a drink and the bar is open for two hours afterwards. Up North it's what we call a good night out.
To 13 November (www.jbshorts.co.uk)