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Review: Cherry Jezebel at Liverpool Everyman ****

More than 15 years have passed – and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge - since Jonathan Larkin’s debut play Paradise Bound was premiered at the Everyman.

While Larkin followed it with a stint as writer in residence with the youth theatre (from which came the collaborative effort Forgive Them), much of the intervening decade-and-a-half has seen him penning scripts not for the stage but for the screen as a stalwart in the Hollyoaks writing team.

But he’s been desperate to return to live performance, and to tell another story he’s passionate about – placing Liverpool’s LGBTQ community firmly at its heart and shining a light not only on the violence that community faces from outside, but also some of the divisions within it too.

There’s precious little ‘paradise’ in the lives of the quartet of characters who inhabit Cherry Jezebel, butthey keep searching for it nonetheless.

Above: Mariah Louca as Heidi Handjob. Top: Mickey Jones as Cherry Brandy. Photos by Marc Brenner

Act one unfolds in the dismal, green-tinged strip light illuminated loos of a Stanley Street nightspot, treading geographically similar ground to Mark Simpson’s 2016 opera Pleasure, where Lesley Garrett somewhat incongruously played a toilet attendant - inspired by a real-life figure at G-Bar.

Here in 2022 we meet the titular Cherry (Mickey Jones) and supportive long-time best friend Heidi (Mariah Louca). Cherry is on a high from being newly crowned as a MerseyPride Icon, and about to get higher…but the celebrations go hand-in-hand with recriminations as the pair’s friendship frays at the edges.

It’s also where we catch our first glimpse of Stefan Race’s Bambi-esque Pearl Reckless, a next generation, non-binary drag queen who thrives on Instagram likes, and also of George Jones’s Stanley Street tourist Mo (of whom we later see an awful lot more).

Larkin and director James Baker together create a simmering, claustrophobic, febrile atmosphere (think Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) as the play’s protagonists warily circle each other in the space between sinks and cubicles.

But the frenetic barrage of witty and bitchy quips, while funny and entertaining, also dilute some of the real emotional punch the scene could have if it just took a step back – and a breath – every now and again.

Above: Stefan Race (Pearl Reckless) and George Jones (Mo). Photo by Marc Brenner

It’s when the action shifts to Cherry’s flat after the interval that you feel that punch land – and where Larkin’s potent (and universal) themes of vulnerability and defiance, of friendship and family, of abandonment, abuse, acceptance and affection are really expanded and explored.

As the bitching stops and the listening begins, we sense that hope might just triumph over hopelessness.

Mickey Jones, who started his career long ago in the Everyman Youth Theatre before, like Larkin, being lured away by telly, is excellent as Cherry, standing precariously Janus-like between youth and advancing years, and protective fantasy and brutal reality, and whose carefully constructed carapace of toughness cracks to reveal the vulnerability underneath.

Similarly, Race gives a fine performance as Pearl, imbuing the complex young drag queen with a compelling mixture of youthful bravado and affecting frailty.

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