ALTHOUGH awash with buckets of sexual gratification, Jerker is an emotionally powerful play. Love, friendship, intimacy, kindness and tragic loss all intermingle to give it an almighty heart. Raw, ambitious theatre from a splendid fringe theatre (King’s Head) always willing to push boundaries and promote diversity.
Set in San Francisco in the early 1980s against the backdrop of a raging AIDS epidemic, Robert Chesley’s fearless play is built around a series of telephone exchanges between J.R. (Tom Joyner) and Bert (Tibu Fortes). Both are moustachioed, physically attractive and gay, but they are for the most part trapped in their rooms – fearful of the world outside.
It is J.R. (a Vietnam war veteran who still suffers nightmares from what he witnessed on the battlefield) who is always the initiator of the phone calls. He makes them from his bed, usually in a state of undress and heightening arousal. His room, at the opposite end of the stage to Bert’s, is on a higher level, confirming he is pulling all the strings (to begin with, at least).
The calls at the start are little more than excuses for raw telephone sex, experiences that always end in mutual sexual pleasure. They’re graphic in terms of content – it is no surprise Chesley’s play came up against strong resistance from broadcasters in the mid-1980s – with both ‘enjoying’ being brothers in arms. Bert leads the way in the fantasy stakes, tying up his little blindfolded ‘brother’ to a tree and cutting off his jockey pants.
But as their relationship develops, the conversations broaden out beyond sex. Friends impacted by AIDS are discussed (in particular Bert’s dear colleague David) while both (J.R. more than Bert) reveal a little more about themselves.
There is vulnerability on both sides, but J.R. probably needs Bert more than Bert does J.R. – a point emphasised by J.R.’s stalking of Bert at nightclubs. Suddenly, after a bout of coughing, calls are not answered. It is all rather sad in the end.
Joyner and Fortes are excellent. Joyner gives J.R. – a historian – a neediness while Fortes’ Bert is all tenderness and kindness (with a smile to melt all hearts). There is plenty of nudity (especially on Bert’s part) that is more beautiful than gratuitous – the good work of Moving Body Arts (Enric Ortunoi and Yarit Dor) in helping both actors deal with the sexual demands of the play is obvious. And of course, there is plenty of jerking off – under the bed covers.
But it’s the tenderness underpinning Jerker that makes it so compelling. A relationship not just based on a physical connection.
Jerker is not without its laughs (one J.R. misdirected call results in him hilariously talking dirty to a distraught listener). But ultimately, it’s a play that is more heart than balls. As director Ben Anderson says in the programme notes, it’s a celebration ‘of love in all its forms, and of life. More than this, it’s a celebration of the universal power of intimacy.’ Spot on.
Ambitious and rewarding. As for the accompanying soundtrack, compiled by Tingying Dong, it will want you to get up and dance the night away.
Title image by Nick Rutter