Paul T Davies reviews Jack Holden’s play Cruise now playing at the Duchess Theatre as theatre UK wide starts to re-open.
Duchess Theatre, London
It’s been a long wait to sit in an audience and enjoy a collective response to theatre, a wait made even longer by the late start to the press performance. But it was worth it for Jack Holden’s heartfelt, passionate and moving Cruise. Created from his personal experience of working on Switchboard, the LGBTQ+ helpline, (who are partners of this production), when he took a phone call that led to an account of life in Soho in the 1980s, the play is a pertinent look at viruses, community, love and, above all, hope.
One of the main reasons the play works so well is Holden’s superb research and knowledge of the period, his respect for what now can be called “gay veterans”, and his superb performance, playing a range of vivid characters. Set in contemporary times, when Michael calls and wishes to talk to an older volunteer, Jack doesn’t respond as he has been trained to do. Realising Jack has had a night out, Michael tells him his story of his best night out ever, which he believed would be his last night alive, in 1988. Although the structure of the phone call seems unlikely, the device works really well in leading us into the past. Holden takes us on the journey with energy and empathy, we meet a host of characters from a Soho that no longer exists, Polari Gordon, Jacky Shit, the acidly jaded drag queen, who delivers a stunning version of “Is That All There Is?”, and Slutty Dave, who, despite the nickname, is Michael’s lover and who he loses to AIDS. You care deeply about them all, and Holden commands the stage with an exuberant, confident, storytelling. There are audacious sequences, particularly cutting Top Gun in with Slutty Dave’s death.
This is not a one man show, composer John Elliott is on stage throughout, partnering Holden in a terrific soundtrack, the beats and moves and musical soaring of a lost generation. As Michael/Holden dances his dance of death, ( so he believes), the music pounds to an overwhelming, moving crescendo. (I had to write this review to a background of 80’s 12” Remixes, the music got into my ears so much!) But, of course, Michael survives, and one of the best things about the show is that the trope of the tragic, lonely, doomed gay man (see Netflix’s Halston), is challenged and taken part. Written during the pandemic of 2020, the clear, shining message is that we survive. We carry on. It’s a joyous, funny, moving piece and I urge you to see it.
Many thanks to the Duchess Theatre management and the front of house team for ensuring we could all see the play safely.