Bruised glamour

Jonathan Larkin talks about his new play, which is a celebration of both Liverpool and its drag community

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Eight years ago, Liverpudlian writer Jonathan Larkin used his connections to engineer a meeting with legendary local trans pioneer April Ashley.

“It was so funny,” Larkin says. “We went to a really posh restaurant. She was shown in like she was the Queen Mother, but she had this glint in her eye that was just pure brass, pure cheeky Scouser.”

At the time Larkin was balancing career strands as both a regular core scriptwriter on Hollyoaks and an acclaimed, emerging playwright. Inspired, he embarked on writing a play about Ashley before running aground.

“I like to watch period stuff and life stories but writing them is different. I realised that about 20 pages in.

“I was thinking, I’m not sure whether this is actually where my skill set lies. But the themes of it were things I wanted to explore – identity, the sense of belonging that we look for as queer people when we form families. I just thought maybe I should update it and talk about what’s happening now.”

The result is Larkin’s new play Cherry Jezebel.  “It looks at the queer experience in Liverpool today, warts and all – I like to say ‘anal warts and all’. Four very different characters come together on a mad night out. It’s about that night out and the hangover afterwards, but it’s also about acceptance and queer family. It’s about those four people colliding and finding a safe space to make all these mistakes, say the wrong things, insult and offend each other, the way people do. Through doing that, they find common ground.”

In particular, Larkin wanted to dramatise the notion of growing older on the drag scene. “What happens when your whole life is built around parties, around noise, dancing and loving and sex and all this – then you go home and it’s just you, and you’re getting older and the men don’t stay. They go home to their wives. What’s the reality of that?”

He feels that there are threads linking the drag community and the Liverpudlian community.

“I think there’s a kind of bruised glamour. You drag yourself up through the muck and laugh at the most terrible things that might happen to you. You’ve got to just crack out a dirty joke and get on with it. There’s also that thing of having a hug and a punch at the same time, that sort of brittle and brash humour.”

While Cherry Jezebel aims to go a little deeper than a glitzy celebration of drag life, it should offer plenty in the way of entertainment. Larkin says: “I want people to come away from it having laughed a lot, danced a lot – because there’s a lot of music in it – but also maybe coming away from it with a new perspective on what it’s like to be queer in Liverpool.”

Larkin hopes that it might even appeal to audiences who wouldn’t necessarily see themselves as theatregoers.

“I would love that. I’d like to get people from the club world, from queer nightlife, to come and see it. But also I’d love to see a bunch of young men who identify as heterosexual come and see things on that stage that might make them go: ‘I recognise that, I get that – we’re not so different.’”

Cherry Jezebel, 8-26 March, Liverpool Everyman

Photo: George Jones and Stefan Race in rehearsals for Cherry Jezebel (Mhairi Bell-Moodie)

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