With venues heading rapidly to a point where they can reopen soon, the theatre world is caught in a kind of limbo as online productions start scaling back and live performances begin to seem more than a far distant glint in the eye. One way of getting round this scenario is to attack on both fronts at once and that is the route taken by the play Cruise. It opened online yesterday and runs until 25th April; then on 18th May it is set to reopen the Duchess Theatre in the West End. It is a small scale production with extraordinarily large ambitions centred on the writer/performer Jack Holden whose full on powerhouse performance will hold you in awe for 90 minutes.
It’s a very personal story for Holden who came up with the idea after volunteering for Switchboard, the LGBTQ+ Listening Service when he was in his early 20s. One of the tales he heard at the time came from Michael a man from Chatham who hits Soho in the 80s, immersing himself in cottaging, cruising and the rest of the blossoming gay culture of the era. And then in 1984 he and his partner Dave are diagnosed as HIV positive and given a maximum life expectancy of four years.
They decide to spend their remaining time living a full on lifestyle and partying until what seems inevitable happens. In fact, Dave only makes it to 1986 and collapses while the pair watch Top Gun (involving a rather different type of Cruise). Though devastated, Michael continues until he reaches the fourth anniversary of the diagnosis. Assuming his number will shortly be up he decides to go out with a bang and have one more burst of unbridled hedonism.
This leads to a quite extraordinary final scene as Holden re-creates Michael’s last debauched night entirely on his own. Indeed, he is extraordinary all the way through as he plays not only his current and younger self and Michael but every other character too changing the pitch of his voice, exercising a whole array of accents and adopting varying postures and body language to clearly differentiate Tabby Kat, Fingers, Lady Lennox, Fat Sandy, Polari Gordon and any number of other Soho denizens.
It becomes apparent that as well as telling Michael’s remarkable story, Holden is also showcasing the many strands of gay culture which propelled the movement to where it is today and celebrating his own heritage; as he was only born in 1990 what he is portraying is way before his own time. To pick just one other example out of many, there’s another stunningly good sequence when he takes on the persona of a drag act who sounds like Les Dawson but delivers an excellent version of the Peggy Lee classic ‘Is That All there Is?’; it starts as a comedy turn but ends as something quite other ( I just stopped writing this review to replay that section and its equally impressive second time round).
Actually, Holden is not entirely on his own onstage as he is partnered by music and sound designer John Elliott who provides a live soundtrack to proceedings which pays homage to the dance music of the time and to which the actor thrashes in wild abandon in the closing section. The whole has been cleverly directed by Bronagh Lagan using the rooms, alcoves and corridors of Shoreditch Town Hall to magnificent effect enhanced by the excellent lighting of Jai Morjaria. The piece always seems to be restlessly on the move in line with the narrative and as Holden jumps rapidly between the situations and characters he has created. His writing is muscular, rhythmic and flexible and rejoices in the sound of the words occasionally breaking into rhyme and foregrounding alliterative effect.
If you enjoyed It’s A Sin on TV recently you are definitely going to love this production whether you see it on film (now) or live (in May). It’s probable that the pandemic has actually helped to get this piece noticed as in normal circumstances it might well have gone underneath the radar. I only hope Holden has the reserves to perform at this level across a number of consecutive nights as watching him on screen left me feeling exhausted but exhilarated by this real tour de force. Bravo!