The night Liverpool won the right to host the Eurovision Song Contest, playwright Jonathan Harvey had an idea to pen a musical for the city featuring hits from Eurovision history. Six months on, A Thong For Europe could rival the main event.
When the host city for this year’s Eurovision was announced by Graham Norton last October, two bidding locations were in the running.
“I never thought Liverpool would get it,” Harvey recalls. “A mate of mine, her mate works for the BBC, and they reckoned they had inside information that Glasgow would get it.
“So I told everyone, ‘We’re not going to get it.'”
Harvey, a Eurovision fanatic as well as an acclaimed writer, immediately thought about the potential to marry his two passions – in his home city.
He already had a half-formed idea about a woman who rented out her home to film crews. “But it wasn’t quite right,” Harvey says.
“Then on the night when it was announced, and they said Liverpool, I texted Stephen [Fletcher, director] and said, ‘I think we’ve got our story now’.
“Immediately, people were putting their houses on Airbnb for extortionate amounts of money, and suddenly you couldn’t get a hotel room.”
His show is a riotous, camp comedy about Lulu, named after the UK’s 1969 Eurovision winner, who rents out a room to the fictional republic of Balkania’s 2023 contestant.
Plays can take years to get from concept to the stage. Musicals usually take even longer. But Liverpool’s Royal Court theatre was keen to join the Eurovision celebrations, and “within days it was green lit”, the writer says.
“They were building the set before I’d written the script. It was great.
“I’d never worked like that before, where you think, I’d better get on with writing the script because it’s going to be on soon. Usually there are so many hoops to jump through to get a play on that it’s quite soul destroying.
“But this has been such a fast turnaround. I haven’t really caught my breath.”
Merseyside pop star Sonia, who represented the UK in 1993, also makes an appearance. Not the real Sonia – but an actress playing her in a balaclava, supposedly so she doesn’t get recognised by fans.
Harvey says the idea for a fake, masked Sonia came from a US TV show. “I saw a sitcom in America once where Cher had come to stay at these people’s house while she was recovering from a facelift. It was literally just an actress with bandages on her face, and she never spoke. It really made me laugh.”
In A Thong For Europe, Lulu wants to scatter her mother’s ashes on this year’s Eurovision stage, after she meets an unfortunate end in a hot tub in her European flag underwear.
“I mean, it’s a daft show about the Eurovision,” Harvey says. “If I was going to be writing a really important, serious piece about the state of the nation, then I wouldn’t expect to write it in such a quick space of time.
“The hardest thing was choosing the songs because I know all of the Eurovision songs, so it’s like, what are the favourites that people will want to be tapping their feet to or singing along to?”
He’s 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. He soon became intoxicated by the contest’s exotic cocktail of cross-cultural pop and kitsch glamour.
“I think it was that scale and the scope of it that felt impossibly exciting to me. It was sort of otherworldly, with lots of things I didn’t really understand.”
A couple of years later, on Eurovision morning, he asked fellow members of the Liverpool Penguins swimming club whether they were excited. He was dismayed to be met by blank looks.
“And that’s when I realised that I was quite different from other people.”
After starting to write plays in his teens, Harvey made his breakthrough with 1993 play Beautiful Thing, a romantic comedy about two gay teenagers.
That had a tight deadline, too. Harvey was a teacher and only had his summer holiday. He wrote it in the first two weeks, typed it up in the second two weeks, then touted it to agents in the final fortnight.
In 1995, Harvey wrote his first Eurovision play, named Boom Bang-A-Bang after Lulu’s Eurovision song, and set at a Eurovision party.
The contest also cropped up in his late-1990s sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme, when a character was 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 contest, complete with a guest appearance from that year’s winner, Dana International.
Harvey has also been tackling more serious subject matter for Coronation Street since 2004 – and says working on a soap has made him disciplined and focused as a writer.
“The first episode I did was about Todd Grimshaw coming out. I found that really 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.”
He was suddenly 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’ time. So you just have to get on and write it and hope it’s OK.
“So there’s that element of not being intimidated by anything – to go, OK, they need the show by then. No-one’s going to write it for me.”
He was keen to work at the Royal Court, which has found success by staging stories – usually Liverpool-set comedies – that appeal to a local audience.
“I think it must be the only theatre in the country that regularly does new play after new play, that sells the number of tickets they do,” Harvey says. “They really know their market.”
A Thong For Europe will be the venue’s 100th original show since it restarted making its own productions in 2006.
“They have regulars who’ll go because they know what they’re in for. And I’ve long wanted to see if I could achieve that too, and find what those ingredients are.”
He adds: “I think this might be a little bit camper than what they’re used to. But it should fit the bill with the comedy.”
Like most Royal Court shows, A Thong For Europe has a strong streak of Scouse humour.
Some of that may be lost on European visitors who come to Liverpool and have a spare evening for some Eurovision-themed entertainment.
“Hopefully they’ll enjoy it,” Harvey says. “It’s an absolute celebration of the contest. We’ll see!”