Cherry Jezebel writer Jonathan Larkin on his hilarious and heart-breaking new play
For Liverpool writer Jonathan Larkin, it’s the stories of people’s everyday lives which really matter.
“It’s everyday lives impacted by bigger things,” he explains. “You tell a small, intimate story but suddenly it has a universal truth to it, so people identify with it, and it becomes a bigger story.”
It’s what the 40-year-old did in his debut play, the comedy Paradise Bound, set in Dingle and which embraced the zeitgeist of the city’s dynamic build up to Capital of Culture.
And now he’s bringing that same ethos to Cherry Jezebel, the Hollyoaks writer’s first stage work in more than a decade and which is being premiered at the Everyman in March.
The play, billed as ‘raw, rude and raucous…hilarious and heart-breaking’, is about the reality of growing up and growing old as an LGBTQ person in Liverpool.
Its big stage debut comes after a well-received rehearsed reading at the Hope Street theatre last summer.
But that’s just one of a number of permutations the script has been through over several years to reach the version which audiences will see from next week.
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Initially, Larkin says, he was inspired by the story of the late trans pioneer April Ashley, but once he started writing he realised that he didn’t want to pen a period piece that needed historical research but “just wanted to write about people”.
The story then morphed into “a 90-page wall of words that was like a duologue between two older drag queens talking about their lives”, informed by his friendship with Lady Seanne and Tracy Wilder, two of Liverpool’s longest-established queens.
He takes up the story: “And then a friend of mine, (dramaturg) Suzanne Bell who works at the Royal Exchange, said ‘this is all lovely, but you need to now go and write a play. What you’ve got here is 90 pages of these really interesting people, but all they do is talk about the past.
“‘What’s interesting is what happens now when you turn 50. Your life has always been about clubbing, meeting the wrong men, doing lots of drugs and drink - what happens then? What happens when you go home, and the music stops, and you have to turn on the light, take off the wig and look at yourself in the mirror? What’s the reality of that?’
“So I took those words on board and kept all of Seanne and Tracy’s stories in my head and then went and created something original from it.”
Above: Artwork by Ben Youdan. Top: Jonathan Larkin (right) with George Jones (left, as Mo) in rehearsals at the Everyman. Photo by Mhairi Bell-Moodie
The result includes both an implosion of a lifelong support friendship along with a clash of cultures between older and younger members of the LGBTQ club scene.
The first act is set inside a club toilet with the faint throb of distant music beyond the door, and the second in the flat of the eponymous Cherry – played by Mickey Jones who Everyman audiences would have seen most recently in Our Lady of Blundellsands.
“I went into rehearsals yesterday and he had me nearly in tears because he’s so good at what he does,” Larkin says. “Cherry’s not a very nice person in most of the play, but what Mickey does is really brings out the vulnerability…he brings out a terrified little child and it’s really powerful.”
Larkin has been writing since he was a small boy but says his first vivid recollection takes him back 30 years to a short story writing competition at Park Hill Primary in Dingle.
“Everybody turned in a page-long short story, and I turned in a 20-page horror story called Island of the Dead, about all my friends being picked off one-by-one,” he remembers.
“I was off school sick the day the stories were delivered. It turned out the teacher had been so impressed - and disturbed - that he’d read the whole story out to the class while I wasn’t there!
“I came into school the next day to all these kids amazed by what I’d written. I had one girl in particular saying ‘what’s a torso and why was mine hanging in a wardrobe?’!
“And funnily enough that girl has now gone on to be an author of children’s books.”
Involving his classmates in his fantasy yarns helped the “chubby gay kid” with the fascination for horror, glossy American soaps like Dynasty and Jackie Collins novels to stave off attention from the bullies.
Above: Director James Baker (left) and Mickey Jones (right) in rehearsals. Photo by Mhairi Bell-Moodie
But he never considered a career as a writer, and was working in a Job Centre Welfare to Work department and penning stories in his spare time when a friend read one and said ‘I know someone who would love this’.
The someone turned out to be BAFTA-nominated Liverpool writer Shaun Duggan who put him in touch with the Everyman and his own agent, which led to Larkin being accepted on the Everyman Young Writers’ Programme.
From that he wrote Paradise Bound, which was premiered in 2006.
He smiles: “What I was really proud of with Paradise Bound was that it was about Dingle, it was about Liverpool 8, it was about working-class people and we got people from there to come and see it who would never normally walk into a theatre because they didn’t think it was a place for them.
“That’s something I’m hoping to emulate with Cherry Jezebel.
"I want to reach out to people who wouldn’t normally go and see theatre because they think it’s posh or not for them or boring. I’d love to get people who’d normally go clubbing to come to the show and be surprised and see stories on stage (about them).”
While it’s early days, he would also love to see the production have an afterlife outside the city’s boundaries.
“The themes of the play are queer family, safe spaces, it’s very much about what’s going on in Liverpool at the moment with homophobia and transphobia and violence,” he says.
"But it’s also a universal story. So we would like to be able to take it elsewhere. It could play easily in London or Birmingham or Manchester.
“What the play is about is four very different people who find each other, who can be themselves with each other but can’t be themselves in the outside world - and I feel like that speaks to a lot of people, not just queer Scousers.”
Cherry Jezebel is at Liverpool Everyman from March 8-26. Tickets HERE