Jonathan Larkin Interview: “Queer people are different, that’s why we’re queer”
With Cherry Jezebel receiving nightly standing ovations at the Everyman, we speak to it’s creator about the icons who inspired it, growing up queer in Liverpool and more.
This article contains spoilers for Cherry Jezebel.
Since it opened on the 8th March, Cherry Jezebel has been receiving nightly standing ovations at the Everyman Theatre.
Focussed on the deteriorating relationship between two aging scouse drag queens – Cherry Brandy (a cis male) and Heidi Handjob (transgender) – their introduction to non-binary new blood Pearl Reckless, and Mo, an ostensibly straight scally who romps with both Cherry and Pearl, it tells a compelling and uncompromising story about queer life in Liverpool.
The characters feel fully realised, perhaps because we do know them. Cherry and Heidi are inspired by two towering icons of Gay Town; Lady Sian and Tracy Wilder. Famous to anyone who frequents The Lisbon and Superstar Boudoir, all but unknown thirty feet away on Matthew Street.
Writer Jonathan Larkin has captured something of the essence of these beautiful characters and transported them into a new dimension. Cherry Brandy and Heidi Handjob are not Lady Sian and Tracy Wilder, but you feel their spirit, histories and voices.
Garnering national coverage, and getting rave reviews from the likes of The Vivienne and Holly Johnson, Cherry Jezebel is Larkin’s return to theatre having spent the last decade writing for Hollyoaks. Following a successful rehearsed reading last summer, a full production is now running until 26th March.
Having seen the play on the opening night, we were left with much to discuss. So, who better to discuss it with than the man who created it? We met Larkin on a gorgeous Friday afternoon, as the first signs of spring rear their heads. We talked about the themes of the play, from generational divides, to social media and the challenges of growing up queer in Liverpool.
Planet Slop: First of all, congratulations. Not just on the staging of the play, but on the positive reviews too. Even The Guardian gave it four stars, and they give everything three!
Jonathan Larkin: I know! They gave my first play three stars, so I was expecting three. So when I got four, everyone was like ‘Why didn’t they just give it five?!’ I got four and it’s great!
PS: Did you start as a playwright?
JL: Yeah, I didn’t do uni or anything like that. But I went to the Everyman on the Young Writers programme in about 2003-ish. And following on from that, I started work on Paradise Bound, my first play.
PS: When was the last time you wrote a play?
JL: I had one after it. We had a rehearsed reading of that, and I went off travelling then. I went to America for four months and since I came back, it’s been telly. I went into Hollyoaks and stayed there.
PS: I guess its concrete work that you know is going to come in – especially as a writer, which is often freelance.
JL: Yeah, and the Everyman went through a few little phases too. When I was first around in 2006, they had a real drive to bring in new writing and nurture their relationship with Liverpool. But then that changed, and it drifted further away from that. So it didn’t feel like a natural home for me. I gravitated back about three years ago. I met their New Works manager Francesca Peschier, and she is a drag loving, queer Croydon girl – who helpfully as part of her PhD looked at Paradise Bound – and I told her my ideas about writing about drag queens and queer family and she was really excited by that. It felt like the right thing to do.
PS: I remember during the first lockdown you mentioned to me that you were writing what became Cherry Jezebel. Was it in your head for a long time before you put pen to paper?
JL: Yeah. I had developed such a relationship with Lady Sian and we went through a little phase where we went round to her flat a lot. Just taking photographs, because Ben [Youdan, artist and Larkin’s husband] wanted to make artwork about her, and I was inspired by her stories. I thought ‘This has got to go somewhere’, so I literally wrote a dualogue with a character based on Sian and a character based on Tracy Wilder, just literally having a conversation for 90 pages.
PS: Do you like writing that way, where it’s just two characters talking?
JL: That’s how I started out as a kid. I had a very matriarchal family, lots of loud aunties, my mum, and my nan who was a pub landlady – big blonde, bubbly. I had all those loud, brash female voices, and I would literally just start writing down the things they were saying as dialogue and start making stories up with it. So, listening to drag queens, it’s not much difference, really!
PS: [Laughs] Well, where do drag queens take their inspiration? It’s often from the women in their lives.
JL: Exactly! So, that’s easy for me. With telly, you’re following beats.
PS: Especially on commercial television, where you need the cliffhanger before the ad break and things like that.
JL: That’s all really useful because it gives you all the tools you need to actually tell a story as well. You have to write the story, and then make it characterful. With theatre, it’s the other way around for me. I don’t go in saying ‘Right, I’m going to write a play about these issues.’ I go in saying, ‘Right, I’ve got these characters and I’ve got to start making them talk’ and see what happens.
PS: I felt like I knew the characters; when you mentioned Lady Sian and Tracy Wilder, that is exactly who I was picturing. Especially when Heidi Handjob was doing her DJ set – her entire performance was Tracy Wilder on any given night in Superstar Boudoir. All she was missing was her trademark telephone-shaped headphones!
JL: …which is amazing because Mariah Louca, who plays Heidi, has never seen Tracy. Since she came to Liverpool, we’ve made plans after plans to go to Sonic Yootha so that she could see her there, and they fell through. She was going to go to the Boudoir, and that fell through. But she channeled her anyway. So it just shows you how on the same page she is with that character and the work that she’s done.
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PS: In the published script book, it says that Cherry’s performance of Dusty Springfield’s In Private is legendary because she’s done it every week for 20 years, and I thought about Lady Sian singing Karma Chameleon before the quiz in The Lisbon every Sunday.
JL: Yeah! What else does she do? Everything I Own. She does Cabaret a lot, Liza Minelli. So much of it is based on them, and I will shout it from the rooftops. It wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for their stories. They live off those stories. That’s their bread and butter. And why not? When you’ve lived a life like that and you’re still here to tell them. Celebrate it as much as you can!
PS: There’s something really nice about spotlighting these people who are famous to us.
JL: They are!
PS: And the rest of Liverpool may not have a clue who they are, but to our community they’re iconic – even if they’re being celebrated by association and fictionalised versions of them.
JL: I’ve always tried to stipulate that Cherry is inspired by Sian, but is not Sian. Because Cherry is actually a bit of a twat to people. Sian has never been anything but lovely with me. Cherry is the flipside of the coin.
PS: Was there a sense of it being important to tell these characters’ stories?
JL: It is important, but it is also important for me as a writer to still be creating something. I don’t want to write down verbatim what these people say. There isn’t much artistry in that. I use that as a basis, and then come up with something else. The first draft was a wall of words of two drag queens talking about the past. I gave it to someone to read and they said ‘Well, this is just your research! You’ve got these two very fabulous, interesting characters who are drag queens in their 50s, and all they’re doing is talking about the past – which is lovely and nostalgic, but we’ve all heard that a million times. Isn’t the story about what their life is now?’ And it was a penny drop for me.
PS: Is this where Pearl Reckless comes into it?
JL: A little bit, but I had to go away and think about what their life is like now. Another inspiration, which I haven’t talked much about, was a bar called Aunt Charlie’s in the roughest area of San Francisco. You step over the crackheads on the pavement to get to it, there’s people shooting up, human shit in the gutter. But it’s supposed to have the best drag cabaret. So, we went. And these queens, you would not cross them for a million dollars. It was rough. It’s a long, thin bar. Everybody sits down either side, and these queens just walk up and down and you give them a dollar that they put in their tits. And if you don’t give them a dollar, then woe betide you! There is a strange connection between our Liverpool queens and these queens on the other side of the world. You could see Sian and Tracy getting on really well with those people.
PS: Well, it’s a rough area of town, and our town is…we hide behind this ‘Greatest City in the World’ thing, and this was a major theme in the play too; the roughness of the area, and the stiff upper lip you’ve got to develop.
JL: There’s a line in the play that I stole from a drag queen called Doreen Kumkwick; ‘A queen’s best friend is a brick in her handbag’ – and it’s true. We build up this mythology about these queens taking all the hard knocks, and that’s what makes them fabulous. But you shouldn’t then forget that those hard knocks happened, and we should question why that happens. And why do we, as queer people, have this attraction to men who will hurt us? Why is it in our nature to do that?
PS: I guess if you’ve gone through school and people pick on you for being gay, you’re bound to think it’s normal.
JL: It’s a funny combo, isn’t it? It’s something I’ve always had. I was never horribly bullied in school, but I was always reminded that I was different. My nickname was ‘Fat Gay Author’, which kinda lacks juge, really! [Laughs]
PS: [Laughs] I was gonna say, it’s almost a compliment.
JL: Well, it’s true. I was fat, I was gay and I was a writer! I still am! [Laughs] So, I went through all of that in school and grew up with a hankering for a scally.
PS: Hence, the character of Mo.
JL: Hence Mo! The uber masculine idiot on Concert Square with too many tattoos and his jeans are too tight. He walks like he’s carrying two tellies under his arms. Absolute fucking idiot numbskull, but, yes please, stand on my head! [Laughs] I grew up with that all around me. It was the thing I was told I would never be, so I felt the need to grab it in some way. If you get one in your bed and make them happy for ten minutes, somehow there is an affirmation that makes you feel a little bit better about yourself. But all its doing is keeping that cycle going, and keeping that power over you. I think a lot of queer people become addicted to it, which is where Pearl comes from, and Cherry. Before the play, that’s what Heidi’s gone through, but Heidi has gotten to a point of self-examination where she says ‘No! I’m better than that, and I need to move on from this.’
PS: I felt one of the themes was a generation gap. It seems to boil down to terminologies, but when all that bullshit was washed away at the end, Cherry and Pearl realise that they have been through the same shit. Do you think that there is a big generation gap within our community right now?
JL: I’m 40. I’ve got mates who are 50+, I’ve got mates who are in their 20s and I see the gap between those two generations. You’ve got the older queens saying ‘You don’t know what we went through, you’ve got a charmed life compared to us’, and then you’ve got the younger queens saying ‘You can’t use that pronoun to describe me because the world’s different now, we’re moving forward and you’re a relic of the past’. None of them are ever in the same physical space. I think social media has got a large part to play in it.
PS: Well, again, this is another thing; there is a moment when Pearl has been attacked, where they are posting about it on social media. I was attacked last year, and one of the first things I did was put it on social media. I didn’t know why I did it at the time, but then the love and support I got the next day really did help.
JL: And that’s real.
PS: The older characters are looking down on Pearl. But to Pearl that’s real, because that’s their world.
JL: Part of that judgement about why Pearl would put those images on Insta came from a place of judgement within me. But, then why wouldn’t they? If a young person feels different from everyone else, has been through a terrible time and the people they meet keep letting them down, then where else will they go for affirmation? It’s easy to judge from the outside. Once you put yourself in somebody else’s shoes you see that they’re fighting their own battle, and you think ‘OK, you’re an annoying twat, but you’re human and you’ve been through something that I’ve been through as well’.
PS: And as for getting in the same space, the younger ones don’t go to the same places anymore. Grindr has completely changed one of the reasons we went to these spaces in the first place.
JL: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s wiped it out. Those connections are being made online, but that’s very different to a connection where you’re spending the night talking to someone and looking them in the eye. The humanity is being bypassed. This is why I wanted to put Pearl with those two characters in a club toilet and find various ways to try to keep them there. If you just stay in the same place and talk to each other, you might find you have more in common than there are differences. You’ll fight to get there. You’ll say all the wrong things, upset each other, offend the audience…
PS: [Laughs] I did see the Everyman’s trigger warnings for the play were the longest trigger warnings they’ve ever had to write! But talking about it just in terms of class, nothing felt offensive because it was real. The queer conversation gets hijacked by a middle class sensibility. This is written with a very strong, working class voice. Have you written to combat the middle class hijacking?
JL: Completely. I feel like if you look at TV, even in my own work, queer characters have to be quite palatable and noble. We’re not allowed to be villains or heavily flawed, or say the wrong thing…
PS: We’re not allowed to be human.
JL: But then often on TV, nobody is allowed to say the wrong thing, unless they are a cardboard cut-out villain or it’s very explicitly an issues storyline. The edges have all been sanded off. It’s taking the colour out of what we’re trying to do. So, writing this was putting the colour back in. Sometimes the colour is dark and messy. Because that’s what we’re like as human beings. Fear kills creativity. If you’re scared of offending people, you’re never going to write anything half decent. At least get it written, and then judge it afterwards.
PS: One thing I loved was that it was thoroughly scouse and working class. But most things you see that are that scouse by Liverpool writers does tow that ‘Greatest City in the World’…
PS: Yeah, it’s a delusion. Where do you think that comes from, because it’s almost like the “USA! USA!” level of pride that doesn’t really exist anywhere else in the UK.
JL: It’s like every scene you see with the Springfield townspeople in The Simpsons, where everyone cheers for everything, isn’t it? There is a place for that, where people go out and see a play where nothing challenges them and they have a night out and they get pissed and stumble home covered in vomit. Fine. But, for me that’s not theatre, or art I want to make. I want to challenge people.
PS: And that’s what I like about it. It’s rightfully critical in the right ways. When that spate of attacks were happening last summer, and so many people were like ‘In Liverpool? In my city?!’
JL: ‘This is not my city’. Yes it is.
PS: This is exactly what I’ve grown up in. Does it take growing up different to spot that?
JL: Well, yeah, because they don’t have to worry. People who live a heteronormative life – who are very much a part of the cult of Live Laugh Love – have a sense of entitlement that they don’t even realise. They’re out living their lives, but their lives are much easier than ours. I don’t feel particularly under threat all the time, but I still wouldn’t walk down Bold Street holding my husband’s hand. For 80% of the time we would be absolutely fine, but there’s always that 20% that hasn’t gone anywhere and last year just proved that.
PS: There’s a line in the play where Cherry says that Liverpool is in the shadow of two football stadiums and two cathedrals, and none of those institutions have exactly been welcoming to us.
JL: There’s a myth that we’re a big matriarchal city, and I don’t think we are. We’re a patriarchal city, dominated by men.
PS: And the line is always ‘A minority of people…’, but it’s embedded into the culture of football, and church, and the city at large.
JL: You can’t root something out if you keep burying your head. There’s always an undercurrent in this city. Ben’s Queer With No Fear poster for Homotopia outside Fact got ripped down, and I had good friends who I love and respect who said ‘How do you know it’s homophobic?’ It says ‘Queer With No Fear’ on it. If that was a poster for the new Star Wars movie, they wouldn’t have been arsed. Or they would have taken it home. This was ripped down, ripped up and left in the street.
PS: And it wasn’t the only one of those Homotopia pieces that was targeted either.
JL: People get a bit blinkered by stuff. It’s equality we’re after, not acceptance. You don’t have to accept me. I don’t want to be accepted, I’m not the same as you. We are not the same as you, and we don’t need to be. Queer people are different, that’s why we’re queer. We don’t want to fit in with your idea of what normal is. But you still shouldn’t be allowed to beat us up.
PS: I wonder…because we’re talking about the difficulties of living in a queer, working class environment, but also about celebrating our working classness, versus what we often get from the middle class, which is fetishisation or patronisation. Where do we fit?
JL: Well, coming from that angle, so long as we’re the right type of gay, if they can put us in a little box. They love Drag Race, it’s often made for straight people to watch. It goes back to the 70s, doesn’t it? The Kenneth Williams character, which all has it’s place and is fine, but was what was deemed acceptable. We’re back there now; Graham Norton, the lovely weather guy Owain, and Rylan. I absolutely adore him, but your mum would love him. Or you can be rough around the edges so long as it’s framed as an issue.
PS: It’s a Sin, the characters were flawed and they talked about dirty things, but it had to be part of a righteous conversation.
JL: It all comes back to what they say is OK for us to do. The goalposts have been set by other people. If we want to talk about shagging for the fun of shagging, or that there are men out there who like to get sucked off in the woods while the missus is at home making a roast dinner, and the minute you challenge them, they’ll give you a black eye. It’s not quite as easy to get that stuff out there.
PS: Especially with that one, because that’s exposing the straights – and, going back to the play, that’s Mo.
JL: I wrote him the way that I did because it’s very easy to make a character like that a cardboard cutout bad guy, and not examining any of that and getting underneath it. That would have been much easier to write, and for an audience to swallow. But, then, what makes straight men act like that?
PS: But is he straight? That was a question that was left unanswered.
JL: That’s what he calls himself, so that’s what I’ll call him.
PS: All the characters are compelling, but he’s the one whose story I wanted to follow after the events of the play.
JL: I was watching the rehearsals and thinking ‘I want to go off and write a spin off just about Mo!’ [Laughs] Maybe I will!
PS: Was there anything specific you had in mind when you were concocting that arc?
JL: I don’t think there was, and there wasn’t a specific man either. In the story we’re talking about Vinnie, Cherry’s abusive ex, and we see Vinnie as a bad guy in flashback, and that’s all he needs to be. But I didn’t want my message to be that people are bad. It’s lazy. I want to see the other side, someone sympathetic so that we feel bad for him and we want him to make other choices. But then he doesn’t in the end. He reverts to type, because he gets cornered. And what happens when a man like that gets cornered? He lashes out. Because that’s what he’s been taught he has to do to survive.
PS: I felt like Heidi was a middle ground between Pearl and Cherry. When Heidi announced she was fully transitioning, Pearl was supportive, but Cherry was dismissive. I couldn’t figure out if that was part of the generational divide, or just Cherry’s character.
JL: I think it’s a bit of both. It’s generational. The younger generation…
PS: Oh no, you’re at that age! [Laughs]
JL: Yeah! [Laughs] ‘In my day…!’ I feel they have more information at their fingertips, but that doesn’t equal emotional maturity. They know more. They can say more words. But that doesn’t mean they have the life experience to know what a lot of those words mean, or back them up.
PS: Or to understand that the people you’re talking to didn’t have the same access, especially in a working class environment?
JL: Completely. Queer communities build their own language, which is a protective device. So I could call you a queer, but if somebody else called you a queer I’d be like ‘Who the fuck are you talking to?’ So, I sometimes think when someone comes in and says ‘You can’t say that!’ I think ‘I’ve been calling her that for the last 10 years. She calls herself that, she calls me worse.’
PS: It’s the same with any minority group. Like the use of the N word in black America. And maybe if we call each other it, it’s less powerful when it gets shouted at us from a passing car.
JL: But we also have the intelligence to know the difference. A lot of the time people aren’t credited with that. I’ve got the intelligence to know the difference between somebody who knows me calling me a faggot, and a stranger shouting it in the street. So, if I then use that word and somebody calls me out who doesn’t know me, I think what gives them the right to do that?
But when Pearl says stuff about Heidi starting a GoFundMe for her bottom surgery, it comes across quite genuine. But when it was written, Pearl was just being a gobshite, trying to cause more trouble between Cherry and Heidi. The real bond between Pearl and Cherry only comes in the last half an hour. In that entire first act, most things Pearl says are for effect, even talking about their dad’s suicide, there’s an element of performance.
PS: As true as it might have been, I remember thinking when she first said it that it was an attention grabbing thing. Because it had nothing to do with their conversation, and Pearl didn’t know these people.
JL: But also, there is a need in Pearl to tell that story. It does come from a genuine place. Pearl is deeply traumatised by it, so they do need some way of coming out and saying it. If they can dress it up as a performance, it’s a bit easier. But all the stuff Pearl says defending Heidi is all needling. ‘I’m gonna pull you two apart because I’ve got nothing better to do. Also, I’m really hurt, someone just beat me up, and I’m going to lash out at you.’ It doesn’t come across that way, and a lot of that is because Stefan Race’s performance is really human and really lovely. It’s a new interpretation, and the audiences are lapping that up, so that’s fine.
PS: That helps as well, making them more human. Cherry is horrible, but you still like the character. And maybe part of that is because we know them – not necessarily Tracy and Sian, but if we walked into the Masquerade now, we’d probably find those people sitting in there.
JL: And it’s good! People like my mum and dad who aren’t on the gay scene – to my knowledge [laughs] – they’re getting it. They’re saying that Cherry is vile, but they love her.
PS: Have you noticed a difference in reaction between gay and straight audience members?
JL: Nothing specific yet, but we had a twilight show last week, and that audience was very different to a Saturday night audience. A lot of older people from the Wirral. A lot of them were sat around me and I could hear a lot of shocked tuts, but they came back for the second act and they still gave a standing ovation, so they got them in the end. There are people who are a bit shocked. I go dark, don’t I? I make jokes about Myra Hindley and Princess Diana.
PS: Surely, that darkness is some kind of coping mechanism?
JL: I think it’s a very queer thing to laugh awful things. It’s a cliché; if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. A friend of mine, Shaun Kitchener, tweeted the other day to say he was at the Prince Charles Cinema in London with all his Millennial gay mates watching Britney Spears’ Crossroads. It’s now become de rigeur for a room full of gay men to boo and hiss at little child actor Jamie Lynne Spears at screenings, because she’s become a villain over the way the family treated Britney. But that goes back. When Mommie Dearest came out [the biography and biopic of Joan Crawford, written by her adopted daughter Christina, in which she alleges years of abuse by the star], there were drag queens who created effigies of Christina Crawford and kicked her up and down the street. And that’s a girl who said she was abused by her mother as a child. We’ve just always found a way, as gay people, to turn something awful into something absurd, whether a massive issue, or something that has happened as a kid.
PS: I think that’s why people like Joan Rivers are popular with us.
JL: Joan Rivers used to make regular jokes about her own husband’s suicide. I think there is a part of all of us that look around at the Live Laugh Loves and the beige heteronormatives and we really want to piss them off. We want to offend them. So when someone does that for us, like John Waters or Paul Verhoeven, we love it. And I think I’ve got that in me in a big way.
PS: It’s a line to walk, isn’t it?
JL: I think it’s more interesting to walk that little line from one side to the other.
PS: Even though it was dark, it was based in lightness. Jimmy Carr got in trouble recently for a joke about travelers being killed by Nazis, and you look at it and think ‘What’s the joke?’ It wasn’t witty, or clever, or commentary. There’s a difference between that, and what you’ve done here, which is finding light in the darkness.
JL: I think a lot of the time, your motivation will be on show, whether you like it or not. So, if people do make a joke where it’s just being mean to shock people, people will get on to it. It’s why you get called out for it. People know on an instinctive level if you are just being a twat. But if you go in there with something a bit more authentic and putting the hours in to make these jokes work, they get that as well. Joan Rivers probably put a bit more work in than Jimmy Carr.
Omg! That ACTUALLY was brilliant! If you’re in Liverpool now or swinging by, get to @LivEveryPlay and check out Cherry Jezebel! Hilarious, heartbreaking and heartwarming! Brilliantly written, cast, acted and created! Now, @jonnywlarkin get working on TV/Movie adaptation please! pic.twitter.com/fere75DnYY
— Minger Spice 🏳️🌈🏳️⚧️ (@DaxxaFreeman) March 9, 2022
PS: I just want to ask as well, because I’ve never seen this before – the gallery that is running alongside the play. How did that come about?
JL: Homotopia came to the read-throughs last year and loved it, and said they would like to support it in some way and have these wrap-around events. So they spoke to James Lawler, the curator, but we put a lot of the artists’ names forward. I really wanted to use artists that I felt haven’t been represented enough in the city. Jonathon Beaver had done stuff in Blackpool and Warrington recently, and we wanted to get him showing in Liverpool. Debbie Divine, a local trans artist who has never shown publicly, and a few other people.
PS: It really added to the experience.
JL: I think it does.
PS: We came early specifically to see it, the artwork, and your playlist was on. It put us in the world of the play before we even took our seats.
JL: The pieces span the history of the play too. Some of them come from the early 90s, and some were made last year. One of the pieces is of one of Kolade, who was one of the people who were attacked last year whilst the reading of Cherry was happening down the road, and some of the artists were attacked too. So it brings it right up to date.
PS: Do you think that is something that the Everyman might do a bit more?
JL: It looks that way. It’s sparked something in them.
PS: I want to ask about the way you’ve used music. How specific were you?
JL: It changed quite a bit, but what I always wanted to do was have that thing I love, which is melancholy pop music. My first play started and ended with Patsy Cline and I wanted to carry that thread into this one.
PS: You’ve published a playlist of songs. Patsy Cline is probably the earliest one, and there’s a bit of a history of gay icons in there. Was that by design, or did it just come out that way?
JL: A little bit, but I didn’t want to go obvious. There’s that line in the play where Pearl says ‘You’ve played I Am What I Am for the 400th fucking time’. And that’s why when Dusty Springfield comes on, it’s In Private, not Son of a Preacher Man. And also with In Private, the lyrics to that song are Cherry’s life.
PS: Did you have that song in the back of your head?
JL: For a long time. But originally, act one ended with Cherry and Heidi having a lip sync battle to Diana Ross’ No-One Gets The Prize, because it’s about two friends falling out when a man comes in. I wanted to get things in there that reflected the characters, but wasn’t the obvious route. I wanted Patsy Cline as she will always be a part of my writing process. I feel like Patsy belongs in a tinny radio in a working class kitchen. Country music is just pure storytelling. That voice is unreal, and it fitted with Cherry’s childhood as well. In act two, I wanted to use something extremely sexy for Pearl’s pole dance and sex scene. We originally used Megan Thee Stallion’s Body, but that was a much faster song, with acrobatics and everything. We wanted to take it dirtier, and slower. That’s why we got Rihanna. We also wanted to pay homage to the 90s Liverpool clubs that Heidi and Cherry would have ruled, which is why we used Rhythm is a Dancer and N-Trance at the end.
PS: I noticed you used The Vivienne’s version of You Spin Me Round as well.
JL: That was in there too, yeah! Dan Mawson, who does the music and is also beautiful, he had loads of good instincts as well, so I sort of let him run free with it a little bit. Music is a massive part of my life, and it’s another form of storytelling.
PS: It’s a subtler way to tell a story sometimes, even just putting a certain song in the background can communicate a lot. It propelled the story ahead in the way that it would in a musical.
JL: I’m really into stuff with TV and film as well, where they use music in a big way, and a song really punctuates what’s going on. I think that’s important.
PS: The casting is absolutely exemplary. Mickey Jones playing Cherry has such gravitas, to the point where I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part.
JL: There’s no-one. It was always Mickey.
PS: You did open auditions at the Masquerade. Was that putting this story in the centre of the place this all happens?
JL: It was doing all we can to be authentic and inclusive. We put the feelers out. We tried the Masquerade because it is now gay-owned, which is always a plus.
PS: And not many of them are.
JL: No. They were really helpful, called us right back, didn’t want paying. They were just so lovely and welcoming. And I really just wanted to reach out. We were casting all of the roles, but I thought ‘We’re looking for scousers, non-binary people, gay cis men and trans people, let’s just give everybody the opportunity to come along and do something’, and then they all had to do a lip sync. And we told all of the straight boys that they had to do a lip sync as well to gauge how comfortable they would be in that world, so we knew it would be people comfortable in that world and wouldn’t be cringing.
PS: And the audience would pick up on that.
JL: I think there’s still a long way to go with Liverpool and reaching communities and how involved they get. I put that on all socials, The Masquerade shared it all over the place. We said; ‘We want to see you, this is your opportunity.’ And on the day, 90% of people were straight lads who were coming in to audition for Mo. You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make it think [laughs].
PS: We feel it when we’re trying to get contributors for the site. But we’re talking about people who don’t feel connected to the culture of the city.
JL: But part of your responsibility is if an opportunity comes your way, you give it a shot. We literally put it in their laps, in the middle of the gay scene. And you can guarantee that there are people sitting in that audience saying ‘Well, he’s not a scouser’. Well, you had the opportunity and you didn’t take it. I’ve had opportunities that came to me and I went for it. I’m no more special than anyone else, but I put myself forward and did it.
PS: But how do you engage people who have felt disengaged?
JL: It’s hard, isn’t it? But I feel like we did everything we could.
PS: If nothing else, it was great PR!
JL: It was great PR, and for the Masquerade as well, who have been lovely ever since. The Everyman is on the top of a hill, and the gay scene is at the bottom of that hill, and it’s trying to drag them fucking queens up that hill!
PS: [Laughs] It’s the heels! They can’t make it!
JL: Well, take the heels off! [laughs] Run!
PS: Literally, everyone I’ve spoken to has said the same thing – we want more from these characters. Could there be more? Because nothing was tied up at the end, and life isn’t like that. We don’t get to finite solutions.
JL: It’s a great compliment that people want more. I hate anything that’s longer than two hours, so the drive was always to make it as punchy as possible. We ended up with a 95 minute show, so there is stuff that we took out that could have stayed. I do like the idea that people want more. And I do love the characters as well. One of my bugbears is when everything has to be tied up in a neat, pink bow. Nothing is in this play, apart from Heidi. She’s the only character who changes her life.
PS: But she made that decision before the play starts. It’s not the events of the play that inform that decision, she made it before we even meet her.
JL: I think there is a part of her that really hopes that Cherry will just be happy for her and will be able to find some way forward. But deep down, she knows it’s probably not going to happen. So, Heidi is the only one who moves on. The rest of them are going to carry on doing the same stuff, because that’s what we do.
PS: But that means we can get more stories!
JL: Do they do sequels in theatre?
PS: Why not? There was a sequel to Phantom of the Opera. Everybody hated it, but they did it.
JL: Well, there you go. That’s always a worry, isn’t it? Can you make lightning strike twice?
Cherry Jezebel runs at the Everyman Theatre until Sat 26th March. Click here for tickets.
You can see Lady Sian and Tracy Wilder making people happy in all the places that matter any night of the week.