West End chemsex drama star Jimmy Essex is determined to tell queer stories beyond ‘the coming out thing’

Jimmy Essex's face against a dimly lit wall

Jimmy Essex had two things on his mind as he swerved out of the way of a car as he crossed the road: deciding what sandwich to grab from Pret a Manger and just how furious he is with Boris Johnson.

The British prime minister, and the bungled way his government had handled the coronavirus’ impact on the country’s once-thriving and beloved arts sector, is on the actor’s mind. A lot.

“Every day feels like a gift at the moment because we just don’t know what’s going on,” Essex told PinkNews, “especially with what’s been going on with the arts.

“I think it’s been quite neglected, it’s really been pushed aside and treated as a second-class job.”

“I think nobody’s gonna get it right,” he said of the Conservative Party’s coronavirus approach, noting he “feels bad” for Johnson. Nevertheless: “I would rather the rules be really, really strict and make f**king sense. It’s quite frustrating.

“But I don’t think I’m qualified to tell him anything. I can slag [Johnson] off on the sidelines, but I’m not sure I could do anything better.”

Essex, 36, had taken his lunch break from rehearsals for GHBoy at the Charing Cross Theatre when he spoke with PinkNews.

The production, which opened on 3 December and written by Paul Harvard, dives deep into the darker underbelly of chemsex – a sub-culture of queer men that use drugs such as GHB to facilitate sex acts.

Experts have sought to reclassify the date rape drug from Class C to a Class B drug – underscoring the severity of its side-effects when overdosed and how it has been weaponised by killers.

Essex will play Robert Finch, a gay man more or less counting down his own self-destruct sequence. Grieving the death of his father, he smokes, drinks and shoulders the anguish of an East London queer community cowed into fear by a killer targeting young men.

It’s a lot. And in the throes of his inner-turmoil, Robert’s boyfriend proposes – a question that prompts him to interrogate why he so often resorts to self-sabotage.

“What drew me to it was his innocence and his vulnerability,” Essex said, known for his former role as Adam Donovan in Hollyoaks. “I think he’s like a child. He doesn’t know what he’s doing a lot of the time.

Jimmy Essex (L) and Mark Bosch. (Bettinia John)

“And I think there’s so much to be said about that. There are selfish people. And there are people that do so without realising it – I think he’s one of the good guys.”

Jimmy Essex: ‘Theatre will come back fighting’

Essex had an almost bubbly tone to his voice as he described GHBoy, propping it up as if he were protective of it. But he has every reason to – it’s both his stage debut and a way to wrestle with his own inner demons, he said.

“I think I can get wrapped up in myself, ” he mused, “which I think we all have, and I’ve made choices based on things that I’ve wanted, and not maybe looked at who that may be hurting.

“[Like Robert] I’ve made those discoveries, and I’ve done that journey myself, playing it through someone else’s just another way of, of working through your own stuff.”

The “challenge” of theatre, he said, felt like a “blessing” to get involved with after months of hunkering down during lockdown with his husband and “best friend”, Charles.

In an effort to squash the stale, almost fetid stress of being stuck at home, his room quickly became a tossed salad of scripts and ideas for short films. Essex said he is determined to help tell LGBT+ stories beyond the “coming out thing” that has long bound queer storytellers.

“That tends to be a lot of what’s on telly, and I kinda was like, what after that? What’s there?”

GHBoy follows Robert Finch (Jimmy Essex) as he battles his fear that he will never love again. (Bettinia John)

But in capturing the resilience and wit of British theatre, Essex said that even as the coronavirus chucks the industry into jeopardy, putting GHBoy on amid it all “really feels like a ‘f**k you’.”

“I do think it’s a shame that theatre hasn’t been something that [the government] are fighting for when I do know that other countries have really put a lot into it.

“When when it has such a huge impact in this country. They do come to the country to see theatre and we’re like one of the epicentres of it.

“So I find it quite disheartening that it’s always a bit like, oh, we’ll just suck it up and find another job. It doesn’t really work like that.

“It’s my life. And this is what I have been trying to do my whole life,”  he said, stressing that he’s not retraining in cyber anytime soon.

“But I do think in times that these things come back fighting, people are going to be desperate to go out people like they were to restaurants. We’re playing it will be the same effect.

“So hopefully, hopefully, everybody comes out fine.”

GHBoy will run at the Charing Cross Theatre from 3-20 December 2020. Tickets are available here