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Review: JB Shorts at 53two ‘has something for everyone’

JB Shorts has become a Manchester theatrical institution - but what did the 24th edition have to offer?
JB Shorts

53two has had a facelift and there is no better way to celebrate this beautiful venue’s nips and tucks, than a trip to this 24th outing for JB Shorts – a labour of love which is now a Manchester institution.

If you have never been before, each play is just 15 minutes in length, and there is so much variety, from the frustration of UK politics and feeling stuck in the same place, to a queer rom-com with a difference, and AI meets Emmerdale.

As always, there is something for everyone.

Some hit the sweet spot many times and others need a bit more development time to ruminate.

JB Shorts at 53two

Isobel Openshaw saves the day

We begin with Joyce Branagh’s fast-paced political comedy, which grabs you from the get-go. Joyce also plays Isobel, who is far more intelligent than meets the eye.

She knows when she is being played by a politician and calls it out.

We follow her and their friend Jenny Legohead (Joanne Dakin) and what follows is a zany and very funny comedy, which perfectly captures British politics, from the distraction techniques, soundbites and empty slogans.

I kept thinking of the late great Victoria Wood, as the writing is warm, witty and relatable.

Branagh, Dakin and Callum Sim are all excellent, passing the comedy baton back and forth with speed, superb comic timing and camaraderie.


Queer representation is vital right now when there is so much noise and division within social media and beyond.

So, Aftercare by Maz Hedgehog is welcome, and you essentially have a rom-com here with leather and marshmallows.

This could be a sweet and salty comedy-drama featuring lead characters who are usually on the sidelines.

But good writing needs to make you feel something or is needed to say something.

Aftercare feels like an idea, which has not had the time to develop into a piece which has a message for the audience.

Sandwiched in between two comedies does not help.

Ultimately Meg Narongchai, Trayvaughn Robins and Macaulay Cooper need lines that sing, and storylines that develop. At the moment, it feels unfinished.

Food Fight

Food Fight is written by long-time pals, Lindsay Williams and Cathy Crabb and it does have very clear messages about perception when it comes to poverty and food banks.

We follow a group of volunteers, as they pack food parcels. This is something very familiar and with images of the Conservatives cutting ribbons as they open what they rebrand as food pantries, it is timely.

Jenny Williams is superb at controlling Davina, who decides who has what based on her perceptions.

Jessica Ellis’s Amy is a recruit who has experience in food banks, and she dares to question the contents of the bags, which are packed based on stereotypes.

Chris Brett and Emily Ash revel in the comedy and bring energy when it is needed. This one could be longer as the conflict feels rushed because of the limited time frame.

And once you see Battenberg cake being thrown across the stage, this one flies.

Life is no Joke

Dave Simpson’s beautifully drawn, poignant and funny look at fatherhood and lost dreams is next. Mike (Darren Jeffries) is an Accountant, but he has always been keen to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter the world of comedy.

Step forward John Henshaw as Kenny the comedian.

Old school but never offensive, Kenny’s jokes are playful, warm and heartwarming, and Henshaw is superb as a single dad who has focused on guiding his son on the best path for him, filled with security.

Darren Jeffries has disappointment and regret etched all over his face and he is superb.

As is Amy Du Quesne who narrates and plays the part of Katy, Mike’s partner.

This is a sublime piece of theatre, as, within 15 marvellous minutes, you laugh, groan, cry and exhale and repeat.

The writing expresses a gamut of emotions, and it feels effortless. But the decision to involve the audience from the off is genius, as you have a ‘buy-in’ and you feel as if you know these characters, as it opens with a mic stand and a comedian falling flat on his face.

Then we get his back story. I am unashamed to say that this one made me cry. Pure perfection.

This is not a Play

AI is either a scary prospect or it offers a shortcut for the most menial of tasks. Like many of life’s complicated concepts, it is presented as something divisive within the news and social media.

James Quinn and Trevor Suthers short follows an actor who plays a vicar in Emmerdale and an image of him in a compromising position has appeared, which could bring down his career.

Is the image a deepfake, and what does this say about AI and the copyright, art and ownership?

This one starts well, as there are some interesting debates here and the dialogue to begin with feels natural.

John Tueart and Victoria Tunnah are both excellent as brother and sister navigating the world of tech.

But because the world of AI is so complicated, simplifying it and having a twist, whereby the characters could be written by a bot undoes it.

If you have ever used a bot, however specific you are it gives you something generic, when it comes to creative writing. So, the fear here is thankfully unfounded.

Mrs Proops

Debbie Oates’s short is the last one and seeing Kery Elly bring Marc Parrett’s beautiful cat puppet to life, is so beguiling, that you focus on this crafty creature and forget that it is being controlled by a person.

Mrs Proops is a cat devoted to her owner Kathy (the wonderful Isobel Ford) but sadly Kathy has died.

She is left with Kathy’s wayward brother Gaz (Toby Hadoke) and once the cat is named in the will, he feels aggrieved, and he also has many regrets.

This one has so much promise, as Kathy is well-written and played with a wonderful watchful eye by Isobel Ford.

Mrs Proops comes to life and has all the conniving characteristics of a cat who is boss.

She reminded me of 53two’s Albi, the real boss of the place.

Toby Hadoke conveys grief with ease, but I wanted to know more about Gaz, as we only know about him through his sister.

If you have a limited budget and you cannot risk spending a great deal on a play which could turn out to be a dull evening out, JB Shorts does provide you with a solution.

It is affordable and you get six plays for the price of less than many out there.

And if you don’t enjoy one, sit tight and along comes another.

Tickets for JB Shorts at 53Two

JB Shorts 24 is at 53two until 18th May and tickets can be booked here

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