New play inspired by city’s drag queens is a ‘raucous, rude and funny’ take on growing up gay in Liverpool
2 years ago
Coming out at the end of the ‘90s, writer Jonathan Larkin experienced for himself what it felt like to grow up gay in Liverpool.
Now he’s written a play which he says is all about identity, about finding safety in what can sometimes be a harsh world, and about finding a place where you belong and where you can be yourself.
“I’ve had long-standing friendships with a lot of drag queens in Liverpool so I wanted to write about how the city is now and tell those stories. And I wanted to do it in a way that is very Liverpool, in the sense that it’s laughing its way through the tears and the bruises.”
Jonathan’s play Cherry Jezebel, which is at the Everyman in March, goes behind the make-up and the six-inch heels to look at the realities of life for four characters.
“There’s two old drag queens, a young non-binary queen and a drunken straight boy in the midst of them and it’s what happens on that kind of a night out,” he sums up.
But it’s actually far more than that.
“What’s really important is we’re on the main stage of a nationally-renowned theatre, we’ve got a trans woman, a non-binary person, Mickey Jones who plays Cherry, and a straight lad, so it’s this big inclusive cast.
“I feel like in the world that we’re living in now, everybody is in touch online but there’s no real connection there. I’ve thrown those people into a physical situation where they have to have a conversation, they have to call each other the wrong pronouns and offend each other, because the only way we learn to move forward is by butting heads and making mistakes. And then at the end of it all we actually go, ‘we’re not that different’.”
Watch as we find out what The Vivienne, Pete Price and more audience members think of the show:
For Jonathan, who lives in south Liverpool, Cherry Jezebel will be his second Everyman production, coming 16 years after the first, Paradise Bound.
In the years between he’s been writing for TV, and Hollyoaks in particular, but he’s been keen to move back into theatre.
“With telly your style of writing and the way you tell stories changes, it’s not as character-driven as theatre, and for me to write a play I have to feel something.
“I’ve been trying to work my way back for five or six years and because I started at the Everyman there’s always been that interest there, it’s just been about finding the right way to do it.”
Originally the script was intended to tell the life story of trans pioneer, Liverpool model and actress April Ashley.
“My husband, Ben Youdan, worked on a portrait of her so he forged a friendship with her that way. We heard all her amazing life stories, she was just incredible, so I went away and started working on a play, a musical, but then about 20 pages in I realised it wasn’t something for me.
“I wanted to be writing more about what’s going on now, so I just went back to the drawing board. At first, I wrote a two-hander which was basically two real Liverpool drag queens, Lady Sian and Tracy Wilder, talking about their past.
“Then I used that as the basis for my own story, so even though the characters in Cherry Jezebel are different the voices come very much from Sian and Tracey and a lot of other Liverpool queens.”
Jonathan began writing Cherry Jezebel about a year before lockdown, but found that some of the issues it deals with were highlighted during the pandemic when there was a spate of homophobic attacks in the city.
“One of the characters, Pearl, who is a 20-year-old non-binary queen from Park Road, is attacked twice in the same night, in the space of a few hours.
“That was written before these attacks came about but when that did happen I thought the play seemed more pertinent than ever.
“I’ve always felt there was a bubbling tension in the city, no matter how many lovely people there are here, and that we are a very patriarchal city. There’s a line in the play that says, we’ve got two cathedrals and two football stadiums and religion and football are two institutions that queer people have never had a good time with.
“But one of my pet peeves is when you go to see a play that’s an issue play and it’s like you’re being beaten over the head with it. Cherry Jezebel is definitely not that.
“I call it queer Liverpool with its knickers down. It’s rude and raucous and funny, we’ve got lots of Scouse house classics in there, but hopefully people will come away having learnt a little something as well about what it’s actually like to be queer in Liverpool in 2022.”