- By Ian Youngs
- Entertainment and Arts Reporter
On the night Liverpool won the right to host the Eurovision Song Contest, playwright Jonathan Harvey had the idea to write a hometown musical featuring hits from Eurovision history. Six months later, A Thong For Europe could compete in the main event.
When this year’s Eurovision host city was announced by Graham Norton last October, there were two bidding venues in the running.
“I never thought Liverpool would get it,” Harvey recalled. “A friend of mine, her friend works for the BBC and they thought they had inside information that Glasgow was going to get it.
“So I told everybody, ‘We’re not going to get it.’
His friend of a friend was wrong.
Inspiration from Airbnb
Harvey, a Eurovision fanatic as well as a noted writer, immediately thought about the potential of marrying his two passions.
He already had a half-formed idea of a woman renting out her home to film crews. “But it wasn’t quite right,” says Harvey.
“Then the night it was announced and they said Liverpool, I texted Stephen [Fletcher, director] and said, “I think we already have our story.”
“Right away, people were listing their houses on Airbnb for huge amounts of money, and suddenly you can’t get a hotel room.”
His show is a wildly camp comedy about Lulu, named after Britain’s 1969 Eurovision winner, who rents out a room to the fictional republic of Balkania, a 2023 contestant.
Plays can take years to go from concept to stage. Musicals usually take even longer. But the Royal Court Theater in Liverpool was keen to join the Eurovision celebrations and gave the green light to his idea within days, says the writer.
“They were building the set before I wrote the script. It was great.
“I’ve never worked like this before, so you’d think I’d better get on with writing the script because it’s going to be released soon. There are usually so many hoops to jump through to play that it’s pretty soul destroying.
“But it was such a quick turnaround. I haven’t really caught my breath.”
Merseyside pop star Sonja, who represented the UK in 1993, also makes an appearance. Not the real Sonia, but an actress who plays her with a balaclava, supposedly to avoid being recognized by fans.
Harvey says the idea for a fake, masked Sonia came from an American TV show. “I once saw a comedy in America where Cher had come to stay at these people’s house while she was recovering from a face lift. It was literally just an actress with bandages on her face and she never spoke. It really made me laugh.”
In Sling for Europe, Lulu wants to scatter her mother’s ashes on stage at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest after she ends up unhappily in a hot tub in her European flag underwear.
“I mean, it’s a stupid Eurovision show,” says Harvey. “If I were going to write a really important, serious work about the state of the nation, then I wouldn’t expect to write it in such a quick time.
“The hardest thing was choosing the songs because I know all the Eurovision songs, so it’s like, what are the favorites that people will want to tap their feet to or sing along to?”
He has chosen classics ranging from Brotherhood of Man’s Save Your Kisses For Me to Conchita Wurst’s Rise Like a Phoenix.
Harvey remembers watching Brotherhood of Man win Eurovision in 1976 when he was eight. Soon he was intoxicated by the pageant’s exotic cocktail of cross-cultural pop and kitschy glamour.
“I think the scale and scope of it felt incredibly exciting to me. It was kind of alien, with a lot of things I didn’t really understand.’
A few years later, on the morning of Eurovision, he asked his colleagues from the Liverpool Penguins swimming club if they were excited. He was horrified to be met with blank stares.
“And then I realized that I was quite different from other people.”
After beginning to write plays in his teenage years, Harvey made his breakthrough with the 1993 play Beautiful Thing, a romantic comedy about two gay teenagers.
This also had a short deadline. Harvey was a teacher and only had his summer vacation. Wrote it in the first two weeks, typed it in the second two weeks, then found an agent in the last two weeks.
In 1995, Harvey wrote his first Eurovision-themed play, set at a Eurovision party and called Boom Bang-A-Bang after Lulu’s winning song.
The race also appeared in his late 1990s sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme, when a character is said to have represented the UK with a song called Dee Do Dee Do Dum Dum.
Then his 2009 sitcom Beautiful People recreated the 1998 competition, complete with a guest appearance by that year’s winner Dana International.
Harvey also tackled a more serious topic. He has worked for Coronation Street since 2004 and says the soap has made him disciplined and focused as a writer.
“The first episode I did was about Todd Grimshaw coming out. I found that very easy,” he says.
“Then for my second episode I had to write a scene between two gangsters, and I’d never written two gangsters before.”
Suddenly he was filled with doubt. “Then you go, you know what, I’ve got to do it because it’s going to be on screen in eight weeks. So you just have to go ahead and write it and hope it’s okay.
“So there’s that element of not being afraid of anything — to go, well, they need the show until then. No one is going to write it for me.”
He wanted to work at the Royal Court, which enjoyed success staging stories – usually comedies set in Liverpool – that appealed to local audiences.
“I think it has to be the only theater in the country that regularly does new play after new play, that sells as many tickets as it does,” says Harvey. “They really know their market.”
A Thong For Europe will be the venue’s 100th original show since it relaunched its own productions in 2006.
“They have regulars who will go because they know what they’re about. And I’ve long wanted to see if I could achieve that as well and find out what those ingredients are.’
He adds: “I think it might be a bit campier than what they’re used to. But it has to fit the bill with the comedy.”
Like most Royal Court shows, A Thong For Europe has a strong vein of Scouse humour.
Some of this may be lost on European visitors who come to Liverpool and have a free evening for Eurovision-themed entertainment.
“We hope they like it,” says Harvey. “It’s an absolute celebration of competition. We will see!”
Sling for Europe takes place at the Royal Court in Liverpool from 21 April to 27 May.
All the build-up, insights and analysis are covered every week on a BBC podcast called Eurovisioncast.