This Robert Chesley play has been no stranger to controversy, since it premiered in 1986 it has seen runs cut short and even resulted in the FCC changing radio broadcast regulations. This is the first time it has been seen in London for thirty years, and Jerker: A Pornographic Elegy now comes to The King’s Head for a full month.
To give it it’s full 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, certainly gives you a good sense of what this play is about. The two characters, Bert and J.R. never meet in person, but instead build up a relationship over a series of phone calls which start off as phone sex, but develop in to something more.
This is 1980’s San Francisco, so long before hook-up apps and when the AIDS crisis was at its height. There is real fear in the gay community, and these telephone calls, which involve lots of role play and, not to put too fine a point on it, jerking off, were perhaps seen as a safer alternative.
Yes, phone sex still exists, but there was no option to ‘send nudes’ back then, the eroticism and the excitement came down to just what was being said. Bert and J.R. pretend they are brothers, jerking each other off in the woods, or tying each other up. These scenarios unfold in a kind of semi-monologue form, they are talking to each other, but not really, the distance between them is too great.
It is these long monologues which are particularly striking, they become like fairy tales or bed time stories which absolutely pull you in. I desperately wanted to close my eyes and ignore what was happening on stage (it’s quite difficult to ignore) and just drink in these incredibly rich and descriptive conversations which are such fine examples of Robert Chesley’s writing.
Eventually the sex calls give way to more profound conversations, Bert has a friend dying from AIDS, and J.R. has scars from the Vietnam war, a very tender relationship starts to emerge and we understand more about the characters. Tibu Fortes and Tom Joyner both give brave and revealing performances, while director Ben Anderson has ensured that we as an audience fully grasp the implications of what we are seeing.
Jerker gives us a glimpse in to the past, and reminds us that not all that much has changed, it perhaps shows us that fate can bring two people together just when they need each other the most, and that carnal desires are rarely a substitute for honest conversation, this is a play which is both wildly erotic and emotionally devastating in equal measure.