Duchess Theatre, London – 13 June 2021
As theatres reopen, the long influence of digital forms is already making itself felt. Jack Holden’s new play Cruise premiered online last month via Stream Theatre and last week stole a march on its digital equivalents by becoming one of the first shows to open in the West End. The opportunities afforded by the closure of large complex shows and musicals unable to perform with social distancing has meant smaller, more flexible works have found a central London debut when perhaps they may have struggled to find large homes before Covid cleared the decks.
Nimax most notably capitalised on this during the second brief period of theatre opening in early December with productions including Potted Panto and Death Drop filling spaces left vacant by West End stalwarts, while The Comeback utilised the empty Noel Coward during Dear Evan Hansen’s enforced extended break. The outcome has been a chance to rethink the types of show offered a West End transfer, and as many hoped during the pandemic, these are small signs that theatre is beginning to open-out, building on the platform that digital theatre has created to give new voices and experiences the widest possible audience.
Putting Cruise on the West End stage feels like a step forward and Holden’s play is exactly and deservedly where it needs to be. Comparisons have naturally been made with Angels in America and – on television – the more recent It’s a Sin and Pose, but Cruise’s tale of community, identity and youthful freedom also has much in common with Max Vernon’s The View UpStairs, a wonderful revival of which was staged at the Soho Theatre two years ago. Though focused on different eras, the sense of physical refuge in a place of understanding, friendship and mutual respect is palpable in both stories with Holden and Vernon focusing on surrogate families, music and recreation, as well as personal and shared experiences in forming and celebrating key moments in LGBTQ+ history.
But, more than this, Holden in particular shows how these stories are part of a wider history that goes beyond particular groups, becoming part of the unified experience of the 1980s, of the modern development of Soho and of a common understanding of an unstoppable virus whose legacy has parallels and direct effects on the last 12 months. What Cruise does so powerfully, is to give voice to a generation of young men whose story is an integral part of contemporary and social British history, not just of their community and subsequent generations, but of us all – and this is why it belongs in the West End.
Holden’s one-man show uses a dual flashback structure which takes the audience from the present day in which a 30-year old Jack recalls his arrival in London aged 22 and the LGTBQ+ telephone support line he volunteered for. Within that frame, the viewer is then taken further back in time by caller Michael remembering the early to mid 1980s when he made the same journey for much the same reason – to escape and to find a like-minded community. These timelines dynamically interact throughout the play and while Holden skilfully creates an easy surface flow, underneath Cruise has a complex structure that like a Christopher Nolan movie moves up and down its timeline as scenes from all three eras overlap.
This carefully constructed rigging gives the play its solidity, a firm and consistent basis around which the narrative is meaningfully created. And while this play-within-a-play-within-a-play approach sounds overly complicated – after all Holden could have staged Michael’s story as a straight-forward linear portrait of the era – its purpose is two-fold, looking at how individuals reflect on their own experiences a few years on in the formative and deterministic construction of personal identity, and the ways in which community memory is generated, embedded and passed between generations.
This seriousness of purpose subtly feds through an entertaining 90-minutes and much of this furious paddling is concealed beneath an easy-going confidence in which the play projects a smooth and unruffled surface to the audience allowing the story to trip along. In wearing its subject matter relatively lightly at first, Soho becomes the heaven-like location for the combined stories of modern day Jack and 80s Michael, and although the exuberance of this central London location has been tamed over time, its legend and attraction as a place of freedom, fun and expression remains intact, deeply connecting the two generations of young men that Holden’s play examines.
The similar desire and need to explore a life and expression beyond the confines of their own, to feel nurtured by a like-minded community and to find release and compassion in sex, music and social interaction is palpable in both sections of the play and the creation of Soho as a character in Cruise is significant in a piece that examines the changing nature, openness and acceptance of gay culture in the last 30 years. It is notable that both Jack and Michael’s stories begin with the ingenue, a fresh-off-the-bus young adult naively looking for a new life with no idea what he’s about to find.
And these sections of Cruise have an empathetic coming-of-age quality which soon becomes a whirlwind of ‘people, places and things’ that shifts the perspective and builds the confidence of the two characters. This is particularly energetic in the 1980s as Michael competitively proves to Jack that no one did big nights out like the men of his era, and his fast-paced lifestyle of well-known bars and venues, drugs, flatmates and drink, one-night stands, parties, hangovers and a plethora of unusual but welcoming and legendary Soho characters is presented in dizzying form that give an instant snapshot of the world Holden is believably recreating.
Played on a physical edifice that reflects the structural complexity of Cruise, Nik Corrall and Stufish’s set has a run-down urban simplicity, using metal rigging to imply the play’s many locations, the centrepiece of which is a rotating metal cage that becomes venue doorways, the streets of Soho, the interior of slightly seedy but much loved bars and clubs and Jack’s office telephone booth. It allows the play to seamlessly travel between the different eras and places, keeping-up with the rapid-fire nature of Holden’s dialogue and the energy of these party sections.
Add to this Jai Morjaria’s neon lighting design that naturally uses 80s electric pink as its base colour and plenty of green, blue and flashing whites for the club scenes, and the visual impact of Cruise is strong. John Elliott’s music performed live on stage completes the rave-like feel, partly acting as Michael’s DJ friend ‘Fingers’ but primarily charting the development in music during this era, emerging from the much disparaged disco to the House music of the mid to late 1980s that transformed the club scene and gave that generation of men their own distinct soundtrack. Together, the energy and vibrancy of these sound and design choices reinforce and evoke the vivacity and zest in Holden’s text.
And then the play undercuts all of this with an unexpected love story and the slow shadow of HIV that movingly reveals the impact of the virus on Michael and his friends, and not in a way that is overly sensationalist, but almost poetic, factual and very human in its real and lasting impact. The relationship between Michael and his lover Dave is unexpected and sweet, a tender rendition of Elvis’s Presley’s You Were Always On My Mind sung at a karaoke bar cutting through the more traditional pop music to create the first real moment of pause in the show to emphasise the point when a genuine connection is created between two people who didn’t know they needed it – and its a showstopping vocal performance from Holden.
The inevitable outcome of this relationship plays out and – as the show’s synopsis reveals – both men are given a four year ‘sentence’ by their doctor, the aftermath and outcomes of which are sometimes very moving but still presented in a tragicomic form that manages to be heartwarming and sad at the same time. Later in the play Michael attends funerals, a list of names some of which we know that again quite quietly show the audience the scale of the virus just within Michael’s own groups of friends and acquaintances. How this all feeds back into Jack’s growing understanding of his heritage and its meaning in 2021 is striking, and though never laboured the character undergoes a subtle transformation that repositions his perspectives on personal identity and connection to the recent past.
Holden performs his text here, adapting the intimate digital performance for Stream Theatre to the much large Duchess Theatre auditorium without losing that close connection with the audience. Playing the two leads – Jack and Michael – as well as an array of secondary characters, many of whom slip by in the vortex of 80s Soho, Holden superbly transforms with accents, changes of posture, and tone in order to people these two quite different worlds. Jack’s youth and inexperience is almost wholesome but there is a touch of condescension in his dismissal of an older creepy colleague that gives the character room to grow in both embracing his new lifestyle and understanding how his freedoms were constructed by those who came before.
The character of older Michael is much more brazen, even sarcastic, a man who has seen it all and Holden draws the distinction with Jack well during their phone call. Younger Michael is a mixture of the two, evolving throughout the narrative as fun and freedom give way to a meaningful relationship and eventual life-defining tragedy. The comedy cast of Soho faces are some of Holden’s funniest moments from the fox-fur draped Lady Lennox and American Queen Stanley to pessimistic Drag Queens, four-day partying Nymphs and maternal barmaids, all of them taking care of each other in a tour de force performance from Holden.
Cruise in a way is about a lost world, a Soho that no longer exists and has become all the more legendary for it. And while the clubs, pubs and some of the people may be gone and a more sanitised, mainstream district has grown in its place, Holden’s play is more than a love letter to ghosts of the past, it is a statement that this is a shared and very present history. A microcosm of society, the impact of HIV and Aids in Soho is not just confined to the LGTBQ+ community but is part of the history of Britain in the 1980s and of us all. Holden’s play may have grabbed a rare opportunity for a central London venue but a West End stage is exactly where this story belongs.
Cruise is at the Duchess Theatre until 13 June with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.
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