There is a line of Merseyside humour that runs directly to Jonathan Larkin from Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell and Lily Savage. The author of Cherry Jezebel, a high-velocity comedy about after-hours queer culture, combines the brutal language of a working-class underdog with a heart as big as Liverpool.
His is a voice that is black to the point of cruelty, yet also compassionate. It would be camp if it were not so vicious; sentimental if it were not so funny. He gets laughs from cancer and suicide, but reserves his real anger for a world that is violently intolerant of those who wander from the heterosexual norm.
It starts in the ladies loos of a city-centre gay bar, like a gender-fluid Stags and Hens, the Russell comedy that premiered here at the Everyman in 1978. Mickey Jones as Cherry Brandy is a drag queen celebrating winning the MerseyPride Icon award. Preening and self-indulgent, she lauds it over best friend Heidi Handjob (Mariah Louca) while firing off scatter-gun put-downs of newcomer Pearl Reckless (Stefan Race) and token straight guy Mo (George Jones).
In James Baker’s production, the cast are all bravado and invective, laying into each other with an unyielding sense of pace. No joke goes by without being topped by another more merciless, still. No cutting comment goes unreturned, barbed and primed to hurt.
Yet, however pummelling their delivery, it is a front. Whether gay, transgender, non-binary or just curious, they use attack as the best form of defence. Behind the facade, they are as vulnerable as anyone, whether damaged by the rejection of their families or physically abused by insecure lovers.
As the simple impressionism of Ellie Light’s bathroom set switches to the cluttered realism of Cherry’s front room (the upstairs bedroom is an unwieldy distraction), we enter a long, darkly comic night of the soul. Larkin writes angrily about the violence meted out to his characters, but he is also withering about their shortcomings. Cherry, in particular, is too narcissistic to be a true friend, her affections as superficial as the wig she discards.
Yet for all the bleakness, the play remains uplifting, as if there is nothing a chorus of Set You Free can’t cure.