Robert Chesley’s play Jerker has always been controversial. When it premiered in 1986 in Los Angeles, scenes that were performed on the radio were ruled obscene forcing a change in the broadcasting censorship laws. The UK premiere at the Gate Theatre in 1990 directed by Stephen Daldry, also shocked the theatre-going public. Subtitled ‘A Pornographic Elegy,’ it’s easy to understand how unsettling this play must have seemed – and it has lost little of its power.
Jerker was an educational play, highlighting the devastation caused by the Aids epidemic and presenting the changes to sexual behaviour adopted by those who were fearful of physical connection.
Ben Anderson’s revival is mesmerising in its intensity, shifting subtly from full-on erotic fantasy to tentative friendship to intense loss in a series of 20 phone calls between two men.
Bert (Tibu Fortes) and JR (Tom Joyner) have enjoyed active and promiscuous sex lives in San Francisco throughout the 1970s. JR has never introduced himself to Bert, but he has worshipped him from afar and he instigates the phone-sex sessions until, one day, Bert no longer picks up.
Intimacy directors Enric Ortuno and Yarit Dor construct a wholly convincing physical connection between Fortes and Joyner that never once seems forced or unnatural. Their performances are playful and erotic but ultimately a fantasy, showing, as Aids took its toll on the city, how the freedom of sexual identity was restricted and emotional and physical isolation were imposed. Chesley’s play may once have shocked but today it promotes pride in gay identity and, most importantly, an honesty about sex.