As we emerge (hopefully) from the grip of the pandemic, the first new play to open in the West End post lockdown takes us back to 1980’s London, and another pandemic that spread panic and fear through a partying city. Cruise, written by and starring Jack Holden, gets a four-week run at The Duchess Theatre, before the long running The Play That Goes Wrong returns to its home of seven years.
Written by Holden during lockdown, the story is inspired by a real-life phone call that Holden took while working at Switchboard, the LGBT+ helpline. The caller, who Holden calls Michael, recounts his devastating AIDS diagnosis along with his partner Dave. This diagnosis came in the early eighties, so Michael would be lucky to see out the next four years. Having decided to live life to the fullest, the night that should be his last turns in to a decadent, drug fuelled, blowout through the streets of Soho.
Despite being a solo performance, there are many characters who make up Michael’s world, and Soho is almost a character in itself. The descriptions of a square mile of London that now only exists in the memories of those who experienced it, drag the audience back in time to the colourful, if somewhat seedy back streets.
Holden carefully constructs Michael’s story, from when he first sets foot in London, to his discovery of the nightlife that would come to define his story. Jumping from character to character, Holden paints a broad vista of this man’s life, and the lives that were lost to the AIDS crisis.
It’s not strictly true to say this is one man play, because always present on stage is composer John Elliott who also performs all the music live. Cruise has a perfect eighties inspired soundtrack, pulsing with rhythmic euphoria while picking up on the darker undercurrent.
Nik Corrall’s set design is constructed of flimsy appearing scaffolding, which seems to bend and sway at Holden’s command. The central portion rotates like a vinyl record upon a turntable, giving Holden ample opportunity to explore the stage as Michael explored Soho. Bronagh Lagan’s direction, ensures Holden has every opportunity to tell this story the way he wants.
Holden’s hypnotic performance, brimming with passion and energy is quite the sight to behold. Ripping up the monologue rule book to create this searing and poetic interpretation of a real man’s life, and the myriad of characters who were part of it. Holden easily flips between the various characters, giving each of them their own sense of individuality, while maintaining a strong connection to the audience.
Comparisons will be drawn with Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance which covered a similar topic, but what The Inheritance achieved in seven hours (it was a two-part play) Holden achieves in a little over an hour and a half. It’s obvious that Holden has carefully researched Cruise, the Polari speaking cottager being just one example of how we are drawn back in time to a part of London now lost, but which haunts us still.
There are moments of genuine comedy and the occasional song, and even in the darkest moments there is hope. Cruise tells the story of a man living every moment like it was his last, and after the events of the last eighteen months, perhaps audiences can resonate with that more than ever.
Tragically, had it not been for the current pandemic, a play like Cruise would have been unlikely to make its debut in the West End, equally had it not been for the AIDS crisis, or if Jack Holden hadn’t picked up the phone to Michael, the play would never have been written at all. Many twists of fate have given us one of the most incredible and must-see pieces of theatre to come to London for a long time. Heaven and earth should be moved to secure a ticket for what will prove to be too short a run for a play that now takes it’s deserved place in London’s history.