London Performance Studios
8th to 9th March, 2024

Jerker follows JR and Bert, two San Franciscans whose journey from a dirty phone call to realising their hopes and fears is a moving examination of the AIDS crisis in 1980s California. Jerker is by San Francisco playwright Robert Chesley, whose works celebrated sexual liberation and highlighted the toll of HIV/AIDS on the queer community.

Review by Richard Lambert, 2 Stars

Starting the performance 30 minutes late with a speech from a guy who didn’t seem to have anything much to say. This was followed by a very long speech from the director who claimed that “this was a little known rarely produced play usually performed by two under-twenty-five year old twinks in two beds. But this is a better performance of the play”.

I’m not sure I needed any of the speeches and would certainly discourage any director from telling an audience ahead of a production that it was going to be “rather good”. We were invited to share a drink and have a chat with the team after the show. The start of the play highlghted the company and their mission “The AIDS Play Project” – all the while down-playing the actual play. “Jerker” felt slightly co-incidental to the evening rather than the highlight.

The set designers were equally as keen to be known to the audience – sitting in the front row and pointed out by the director’s pre-curtain speech. The stage manager/sound operator also walked along the front of the stage to get to the control table in the corner. A more discrete route was available around the back of the seated audience.

This certainly isn’t theatre trying to hide everyone’s petticoats.

The show begins with a drag queen, Ms Sharon le Grand, bestowing little bits of torn up paper on the audience as she makes her way to the raised central platform. She welcomes, sings a bit and then sits down by her music stand and mic stand. Her role is to read the stage directions as printed in the script.

The two characters in the play, Bert and JR, are at each end of the runway stage – again with a music stand and scripts. They’re on head radio mics. While Syrus Lowe playing Bert is clear and enunciating brilliantly, his fellow actor, Adam Silver, playing JR, is rather mumbly and low-key.

But here’s the thing about JERKER. It’s a monumentally significant play! So far as theatrical liturgy goes, it’s as big as Stonewall. It was shocking and outrageous in its day. It was banned. Laws couldn’t censor the play – so laws were changed. Even it’s original 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” was designed to be shocking. To claim the play “wasn’t produced very much in the UK” is slightly disrespectful to it’s legacy. The UK Premiere of Jerker was performed in London at the Gate Theatre (London) in 1990 under the direction of Stephen Daldry (assisted by Kevin Knight) with Set Design by Ian MacNeil (scenic designer) with Stevan Rimkus (as JR) and Anton Horowitz as Bert. Jerker has subsequently been considered “one of the most important pieces of gay theater ever created”. Jerker returned to the UK in 2019, running at The King’s Head Theatre in London. The play was directed by Ben Anderson, with Tom Joyner as J.R. and Tibu Fortes as Bert.

I worked at the Gate Theatre as Technical Manager and was Theatre Manager at the King’s Head Theatre when Jerker was brought in as a revival.

Jerker is supposed to shock. It is supposed to make the audience discuss issues of the day. It was never intended to be a sad story aiming to pull at the heart strings about issues of times-gone-by. It does not work as a radio play presentation. It would have taken very little to add two beds and have the actors say their lines from them. Most actors are very capable of learning lines. This isn’t a difficult play to stage as a play. It deserves a better production.

Robert Chesley himself has had an incredible life that deserves to be know.
Please click here to read his life-story on Wikipedia.

With the lights blindingly focussed on the first few rows of the audience where I was sat, it was a long evening. The most sanitised version ever conceived for Jerker, I feel the only person shocked by this evening’s presentation would be Robert Chesley himself.

Writer Robert Chesley
Director Alastair Curtis
Bert  – Syrus Lowe
J.R. – Adam Silver
The Helping Hand – Ms Sharon le Grand
Set and Costume – Max Allen and Elliott Adcock
Music – Helen Noir
Producer – Izzy Parriss
Creative Producer – Kind