A sexually explicit show about two gay men who engage in phone sex in the 1980s is returning to London. David Hudson caught up with director Ben Anderson to talk about Jerker.
An acclaimed but largely forgotten play set during the height of the AIDS epidemic is set to receive an overdue London revival in October.
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, is – for obvious reasons – most commonly known simply as Jerker. Written by Robert Chesley, it examines the deep fear gay men in the mid-80s felt around sex. At a time when there was no effective treatment for HIV and thousands of gay men were dying of AIDS, the psychological impact felt by many was tremendous.
Jerker – a pun on jerking off and tear-jerker – is a one-act, two-man show. Its two characters forge a relationship based on phone calls to one another in which they talk dirty to one another.
The show immediately resonated with many gay men who saw it when it premiered in West Hollywood in 1986. A London run was directed by Stephen Daldry (who went on to direct the film, Billy Elliot).
Jerker ran into controversy before it even premiered. A local radio station broadcast excerpts from the show in summer 1986, outraging a local Christian minister who happened to hear it. He filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC subsequently ruled the broadcast indecent and instigated new, more stringent broadcast indecency guidelines in the US.
Playwright Chesley knew his subject matter intimately. He’d lost friends to AIDS and was to die himself of HIV-related illness in 1990.
Despite its controversy, Jerker has not been performed again in London in almost 30 years. That’s set to change when it comes to the King’s Head Theatre in Islington for a limited run between 30 October and 23 November.
The revival’s helmed by director Ben Anderson, who, at only 27, admits it has proved an education.
“It’s been a history lesson in learning far more about the gay community and San Francisco at that time,” he tells Boyz. “I’m British as well, so it’s a whole learning exercise for me.”
Anderson has previously directed A Bench at the Hedge in the Hen & Chickens and assisted a range of opera productions and fringe theatre. This is his graduate show from the King’s Head Theatre’s award-winning Trainee Director’s Scheme.
He tells Boyz he knew the King’s Head’s had previously revived some classic gay plays. Keen to add to the roster led him to Jerker. Was he surprised the play has lain unproduced for so long?
“Yeah, I was surprised. I felt, ‘Surely someone else has found this and put it back up,’ because it says a lot about a time and a place and a period. But it also speaks a lot today as well. It’s really funny, really erotic but also really moving, so the perfect combination for a play.
“It’s obviously an AIDS play and it’s set in San Francisco in 1985, so there is a very specific, historic element to it. But I think in terms of the more universal themes of the play, it’s about two people reaching and trying to connect to each other. It’s about how we form those links with each other, and I think those are strong universal themes that resonate today.”
That universal appeal also chimed with the King’s Head. Its Artistic Director, Adam Spreadbury-Maher, said in a statement: “Jerker exposes the inhumane response to the AIDS crisis from the government of the day, and the shackles of confinement that are thrust upon these men. We must not forget this happened.
Lest this play be lost to the annals of history, we have a responsibility to stage it. The themes of isolation are particularly relevant today in our world of digital addiction.”
And… well, just how much of a ‘pornographic elegy’ is this production? What might people expect?
“The ‘pornographic elegy’ is the subtitle from Robert Chelsey himself,” says Anderson. “He was very keen to celebrate the full aspect of the male body and of male sexuality. We really want to honour that in this production.
“[Jerker] has a real history of being very controversial and in your face as a piece of theatre, so, we want to honour that in our production.
“Chesley was very unafraid as a writer to put that [sexual element] front and centre, but what really elevated the play for me was that sense of something else that he brought in, the nuance he gives his characters, the way he allows them to present themselves fully as people and develop this relationship.
“As their relationship grows you start to know more about these men. You really identify with them and how they feel in this moment where they struggle to find physical closeness with someone and are reaching out for any connection they can find.”