REVIEW: JB Shorts 17 (53-Two, Manchester)

JB Shorts 17 at 53-Two, Manchester until 27 May 2017
JB Shorts 17 at 53-Two, Manchester until 27 May 2017
upstaged rating: 

JB Shorts 2017 is a diverse collection of six short plays – each lasting fifteen minutes – written by established TV writers. Started in 2009, it is a bi-annual event that aims to showcase local talent in and around Manchester.

The first in the selection of plays is Helen Farrall’s Turn Around When Possible, which tells the story of married couple Gemma (Alexandra Maxwell) and Kev (Gareth Bennett-Ryan), who are on their way to Gemma’s birthday meal when their car breaks down. And while they run into Kev’s boss Melissa (Julia Walsh), they find that she is not all that they have to confront. Bennett-Ryan offered an emotional performance, however, Maxwell and Walsh’s delivery at times fell flat. Although at times the storyline felt reminiscent of a soap-opera, it had an undeniable heart.

Living the Dream by James and Aileen Quinn follows, starring Adam Jowett as Sam, a rehab patient tended to by nurse Rosa (Sandra Cole). This particular play features both clever and politically charged dialogue, with “Sam” representing fallen America. Both Jowett and Cole offer engaging performances, pushing the eloquently written script to new depths. Despite this, had I not read the play’s summary beforehand, the true meaning of the character may not have been as clear.

The last play before the interval is Pretty Pimpin’ by Peter Kerry. Richard (James Quinn) is preparing to appear on the radio show Desert Island Discs in order to promote his memoir. However, both his agent Vicky (Victoria Scowcroft) and his daughter Janet (Alice Proctor) feel that one song, in particular, is missing. Kerry’s writing is beautifully delivered by the cast, offering a poignant and bittersweet story about the helplessness of a father.

Despite the promising quality of the first three plays, those that followed the interval were perhaps the best of the night, and my personal favourites.

Ian Kershaw’s Keep Breathing is a hilarious and skilfully written piece, starring Amy Drake as spinning instructor Carly, reflecting on her week whilst giving a class. The character of Carly will be familiar to many, and Drake brings remarkable charm and heart to her. And as Carly begins to realise that life with condescending boyfriend Matt (Ethan Holmes) may not be all that it seems, Keep Breathing takes on a more inspirational tone, encouraging us to live life for ourselves, not for others.

This was followed by Nick Ahad’s equally hilarious Inside Voices, which follows characters Reshma (Perveen Hussain) and Bob (Adam Rickitt) on their first date. However, there are some rather uninvited guests – their egos, played by Sara Latif and Leon Tagoe. With Inside Voices, Ahad offers an insightful and humorous look into self-censoring and what might happen if we just stopped listening to that inside voice.

But perhaps the most surprising performance of the night was Dave Simpson and Diane Whitley’s Pot Plant. Pensioners Iris (Jenny Gregson) and Stephen Aintree (Brian) are enjoying a quiet night at home when their house is raided by the police – but what will they find? Simpson and Whitley’s writing is as unexpected as it is absorbing. What starts out as a humorous story of two pensioners facing charges for the most unlikely crime actually has a deeper meaning to it. Gregson and Aintree’s experience serves them well in this unique piece, both giving a committed and at times riveting performance.

Overall, JB Shorts 17 is not to be missed. It is a delightful evening full of wit, charm and remarkable poignancy. And most importantly, it succeeds in delivering what it aimed to do – showcasing local talent.

-Megan Hyland

JB Shorts 17 runs at Manchester until Saturday 27th May 2017.

REVIEW – The Pitmen Painters (Oldham Coliseum)

James Quinn, Micky Cochrane, Simeon Truby, Jim Barclay in The Pitmen Painters at Oldham Coliseum © Joel C Fildes
James Quinn, Micky Cochrane, Simeon Truby, Jim Barclay in The Pitmen Painters at Oldham Coliseum
© Joel C Fildes
Upstaged rating: 

The Pitmen Painters is a true story following a group of men from the mining community as they rediscover and reflect on their world through art. Written by Lee Hall, best known for Billy Elliot, the play follows The Ashington Group from their first art appreciation class in the old army hut to exhibiting in national galleries and gaining critical acclaim.

The story unfolds in a small mining town in Northumbria called Ashington. It’s 1934 and a group of miners decide to hire a professor, Robert Lyon (Cliff Burnett) to teach an art appreciation evening class. Headed up by no-nonsense union man George (Jim Barclay) the group of men soon abandon the theory of art in favour of practice. Amusing and moving, under Kevin Shaw’s light directorial hand, The Pitmen Painters shines a light on a group of ordinary men who achieve unprecedented things.

Joe Strathers-Tracey’s framed projections of the original Ashington Group artwork hang at the back of the stage – depicting images inspired by a 1930’s coalfield community. It’s a thought-provoking reminder of the cultural and economic barriers that can stand in the way of achieving individual potential and expression.

The cast are brilliant and there is a real sense of camaraderie throughout with some superb individual performances. Jim Barclay gets plenty of laughs from the Northern crowd as the sharp-toned leader of the group and, in contrast, Simeon Truby plays the most promising artist of the group Oliver with sensitivity and focus. Helen Kay impresses as the bohemian art-lover Helen Sutherland and Maeve O’Sullivan adds a jot of cheekiness to the stage as the art student come life model, Susan. Cliff Burnett leads as the eccentric but humble art professor Robert Lyon,  with Luke Morris, James Quinn and Micky Cochrane completing an assured line-up.

The Pitmen Painters is perfect programming for the Oldham Coliseum and is certainly worth catching. Perhaps what makes this story so brilliantly charming is that it is a true story about a group of working-class men. The real warmth in The Pitmen Painters lies in the Ashington Group’s true friendship as they embark on a discovery of themselves and each other through art.

-Kristy Stott

The Pitmen Painters is on at Oldham Coliseum until Saturday 27th February 2016 and you can get tickets here.

REVIEW – Noises Off (Octagon Theatre, Bolton)

© Ian Tilton
© Ian Tilton
Date: 13 june 2015
Upstaged Rating: 

Noises Off, written by Michael Frayn, takes us behind the scenes to witness the backstage shenanigans of a shambolic theatre company. With less than twenty-four hours to go until their opening night of ‘Nothing On’ everything that can go wrong, is going hopelessly wrong. When the play opens the cast are in the throes of their dress rehearsal…or is it their technical rehearsal…nobody really seems to know. However, one thing is for certain – there are plenty of laughs in this chaotic and hilarious comedy about this dysfunctional theatre company.

Director David Thacker pulls out all the stops in his final production as artistic director at Bolton’s Octagon. After six years at the helm he is leaving to take up the prestigious position of Professor of Theatre at the University of Bolton enabling him to ‘engage with new generations of talent’ while still continuing to direct two productions, as Associate Artistic Director, each season for the Octagon.

Designed by Ruari Murchison, the intricacy of the set is highly impressive and the scene changes even more so. The play runs for just over 3 hours which includes two 25 minute intervals during which the backstage crew completely switch the set around. Although these set changes may seem slightly excessive, many of the audience seemed to enjoy watching the production crew turn the stage around so quickly. Also, considering the themes of the play it was very apt that the audience were able to have a glimpse into the real-life workings of a theatre and all of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes.

The cast of nine all bring high energy and impeccable timing to the stage with notable performances from Jessica Baglow (Poppy), Colin Connor (Freddy), Paula Jennings (Brooke), Barbara Drennan (Belinda), James Quinn (Tim) and James Dutton (Garry), Charlotte Cornwell (Dotty) and Alan Taylor (Selsdon). Philandering and harassed Director Lloyd Dallas, played by Rob Edwards attempts to get the show on its feet despite Dotty’s missing sardines, Selsdon’s drunken antics and doors that stick or won’t close properly.

Noises Off has all of the trademarks of a superb British farce, providing the perfect closure to the Octagon’s theatre season and David Thacker’s position within it. There is certainly a lot to enjoy in this classic comedy and judging by the laughter in the auditorium on the night I attended, it’s a big hit with the Bolton audience too.


-Kristy Stott

 Noises Off runs at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton until 4 July 2015. 

Notable dates include: Meet the Director and cast Monday 29 June and Investigate Day (a full day event around the themes and issues of the play) on Saturday 27 June. There is an Audio Described performance on Wednesday 24 June, British Sign Language performance on Thursday 11 June, and Captioned Performance on Thursday 2 July.

REVIEW – JB Shorts 13 (Joshua Brooks)

John Catterall and David Crellin in Coalition Nightmare
John Catterall and David Crellin in Coalition Nightmare
Date: 16 april 2015
Upstaged Rating: 

After 12 sell-out seasons, JB Shorts is back with its thirteenth edition. For those who aren’t familiar with JB Shorts – it is an evening of 6 brand new plays, each of 15 minutes duration, written by respected television writers. JB Shorts was first produced in 2009 and has built up a brilliant reputation and received widespread critical acclaim – this live entertainment bonanza continues to brighten up the dark cellar of Joshua Brooks pub in Manchester city centre with two editions each year.

First up is Talk Talk, a two hander written by Catherine Hayes and directed by Liz Stevenson. What first appears as an abstract conversation between Mathilda (Sheila Jones) and Ellie (Jennifer Hulman) about currency and post codes actually transpires to be a very peculiar job interview.

Karaoke Cara, written by Trevor Suthers and directed by Barry Evans, is up next. When snotty Michael (Bill Bradshaw) tries to snoop on his widowed and aristocratic father’s new love interest he gets more than he bargains for. Encouraged by his super-posh friend Jeremy (Aaron Cobham), the story takes a humorous twist when his fathers new girlfriend Cara (Denise Hope), shop worker and karaoke singer, manages to get the upper hand on the pompous pair. Bradshaw and Cobham’s exaggerated upper class accents, which did slip at times, masked some of the promising humour in the script.

Number three is Chris Thompson’s Safe in Our Hands. Directed by Alyx Tole, it is a left wing Dickensian expression about the state of the NHS. When Bunyan (Ralph Casson) complains about pains in his chest, three ghosts visit him – the first his dead mother Bev (Joyce Branagh) who gives him a dressing down with a fine performance; secondly, upper-class Bullingham (Jack Dearsley) appears as a representative of capitalism trying to flog elements of the NHS to Bunyan; finally, he’s joined by the ghost of Branston (Ethan Holmes) who tries to convince him to purchase private health care while dressed as a Virgin air hostess. It’s all very entertaining and relevant to the general election next month.

Illusion written by Diane Whitley and directed by Alice Bartlett, was the highlight of the night for me. Through the interval the cast roam the crowd performing card tricks which paved the way for the Victoria magic show which followed. A renowned magician, Mafeking (James Lewis) has disappeared during one of his shows and his comrade Archie (Haydn Holden) organises a spooky séance to try to find out what has happened to him. All of the cast put in strong performances namely, Vanessa Hehir, Emma Laidlaw, Alex Phelps and Joe Slack and the staging for the magic tricks is well executed and managed.

Number five was A Muslim, a Jew and a Christian Walk into a Room written by Nick Ahad and directed by Max Shuell which depicts an Orwellian state where religious expression has been outlawed. The three characters David (Garry Hayden), Qadir (Kamal Kaan) and James (Murray Taylor) meet in secret to pray. However, a clever turn in the plot reveals that one of the characters is not how he appears.

Coalition Nightmare was the final short of the night, written by Dave Simpson and directed by James Quinn, it depicts the nightmarish prospect of UKIP managing to swing the balance of power in a hung parliament. There are good performances all round, Jack (David Crellin), Ted (John Catterall) and Charlotte (Jenny May Morgan) stealing the show with a well observed and well timed representation of a newsreader.

JB Shorts never disappoints, however, this time it seemed to be overloaded with political material due to the general election next month. And with the election propaganda being forced down our throats at the moment, I would have welcomed more escapism, like Diane Whitley‘s Illusion, with open arms.

-Kristy Stott

JB Shorts 13 is on at Joshua Brooks until Saturday 25th April. Tickets cost £7.00.