BWW Review: JERKER, King's Head Theatre
When Jerker first premiere in Los Angeles in 1986 and excerpts from it were performed on the radio, it lead to a revolution in broadcasting censorship laws due to the alleged obscenities it portrayed.
Its full title, Jerker or the Helping Hand: A Pornographic Elegy with Redeeming Social Value and a Hymn to the Queer Men of San Francisco in Twenty Telephone Calls, Many of Them Dirty (shortened here to Jerker: A Pornographic Elegy) sums up Robert Chesley's drama. London saw its one and only production at The Gate Theatre in 1990 - which also took audiences by surprise - and now it's finally having its comeback at director Ben Anderson's hand at the King's Head Theatre.
The piece is a slice of queer history, offering an insight into the AIDS epidemic of the 80s in a play that belongs on the same level of the bona fide classics The Normal Heart and Angels in America. As the outbreak catches on and the media start to cover it extensively, Bert (Tibu Fortes) and JR (Tom Joyner) explore their erotic fantasies over the phone. They've never met properly nor they've physically touched each other, but they come together in their minds to reach the intimacy they can't achieve in their day-to-day relations.
Chesley displaces sexual promiscuity from the real world to his characters' imagination and gradually has the duo's hot and steamy inclinations give way to tenderness and tragedy. Safety concerns and the gloom stemming from the alienation of gay men seep into their conversations and, in twenty quick scenes, they face the outer forces they've seen their friends dealing with before them.
While Fortes and Joyner deliver confident and profound performances of both the carnal and touching levels of the text, the direction isn't entirely inspired. Anderson arranges the space slightly impractically - even though the setting makes sense when we refer it back to the meaning and perception of the material. He separates the beds to create a sexy match of tennis, but in doing so he affects the audience's experience of it, making it harder for a portion of the room to follow the exchanges.
The show sways between being a celebration of very classical male beauty to a display of raunchy stories being swapped in a pre-Grindr era while the two energetically masturbate. Besides creating a connection through their shared lascivious nature, they establish the backdrop of their society. The crisis becomes a watershed in their lifestyles, a crack that has completely overthrown the essence of their freedom and quality of their intimate escapades.
Very visual and descriptive language accompanies their closeness, and meaning is found in the pauses and lack of responses. It presents, however, a fairly predictable storyline that, while building sexual tension quite brilliantly, falls short when it comes to dramatic anticipation. The significance of this tale, however, comes through with its precise context and truthful point of view, bluntly opening the curtains onto a horribly tragic time in the LGBTQ+ community.
Photo credit: Nick Rutter