Apollo Theatre, London – until 4 September 2022
It’s amazing what difference a year makes. Actually, it’s 15 months since Jack Holden’s almost-monologue exploded into the West End to ecstatic reviews and equally enthusiastic audiences. It rode the wave of the zeitgeist, following hot on the heels of TV’s magnificent It’s A Sin, with which it shares themes and a historical time period (the brutal decimation of the London gay community by AIDS in the 1980s), it was at the vanguard of live theatre reopening post-pandemic, and there was a particular potency to presenting a story about a plague in the midst of another plague.
Now it’s back, in a larger venue and a slightly more bombastic physical production. Director Bronagh Lagan’s deceptively sophisticated direction remains, as does Stufish and Nik Corrall’s revolving set, part climbing frame, part cage, part safe space. Prema Mehta’s neon-etched, clubby lighting feels more overwhelming than the original. Already boldly inventive, the physical production now feels like a complete sensory journey, thanks in no small part to the exciting sound design of John Patrick Elliot (who also performs as a musician/extra character and proves at once unobtrusive yet indispensable) and Max Pappenheim.
I’m not sure however if it’s the less intimate venue (the Apollo is hardly cavernous but it’s probably a tougher space than the 470-seat Duchess where this show originated) or that theatrical expectations have altered, but neither the script nor Holden’s central performance dazzle quite as much as they did when they first appeared. The gear changes between the fabulously comic and harrowingly sad, and the transitions from prose to poetry and rap, feel clunkier this time around. Despite that, Cruise remains an impressive achievement, at once a Valentine to a lost Soho and a eulogy for some of the lost souls that were early AIDS victims.
Another USP that Cruise had, and still has, is that outside of the late Kevin Elyot’s superb canon, there are few British plays that deal with the devastating effects of HIV and AIDS upon the gay community. The USA has the NYC-centric The Normal Heart, As Is, and Angels In America, and of course Mathew Lopez’s extraordinary epic The Inheritance, which premiered at The Young Vic but always had its spiritual home on the other side of the pond. Over here though, not so much. and Holden’s dynamic, accomplished piece of storytelling goes some way to redressing that balance.
Holden switches capably from unassuming present-day good guy to outrageous Soho denizens of yesteryear, to edgy, but not unsympathetic, gay movers-and-shakers, with an astonishing fluidity. At the top of the show he might seem likeable if nondescript, but by the end of it you marvel at his energy and sheer chutzpah, even if a couple of the accents he assumes are a bit iffy.
His writing is spicy and inventive, conjuring up a colourful milieu that marries sleaze with the sense of a gleeful community that may be living in the shadow of death, but fairly bursts with vitality. The Soho he evokes in this confessional-cum-scream of defiance is simultaneously full of joy, kindness, eccentricity and danger.
I wasn’t perhaps as bowled over by Cruise on a second viewing, but it unquestionably delivers on it’s triple promise of fusing theatre with club culture, a history lesson, and a rambunctious piece of entertainment. If you couldn’t get to see it first time around, don’t miss your chance now…it’s quite a thrill ride.