Hello again, West End. And hello and thank you Nica Burns for opening the doors of the Duchess Theatre not to something we have seen before, or to some safe comedy, but to Jack Holden's Cruise, a blistering blast of a one-man show about queer life in Soho circa 1988.
Like It's a Sin and The Inheritance, with which it has qualities in common, Cruise takes us back to the devastating tragedy of the Aids epidemic. But it also paints a wonderfully vivid picture of gay life in London at the time, evoking an entire lost world, with familiar and distinctive haunts, listed like a litany, where a generation of young men discovered freedom at the same time as they put themselves at risk of a terrible death.
Holden was inspired to write the piece by the stories he heard while volunteering on the LGBTQ Switchboard, and in particular a call from a man he calls Michael, who had been diagnosed as HIV positive in 1984 and told he would be dead before four years were out. He survived to tell the tale to Holden some 30 years later and when Covid struck, the actor was inspired to turn that memory into a play.
He frames the action by describing himself as a green-behind-the-ears volunteer, a middle-class stripling, with no real understanding or empathy – and then by gradually drawing us into both Michael's history and the streets of Soho at the time. What's so impressive about Cruise is that with the simplest of means and only Holden, plus the musician and DJ John Elliott on stage, it feels so full of life and of people, from kindly landladies to rackety drag queens, from a man in a maroon suit who speaks Polari, to Michael's gruff lover Slutty Dave, dying before our eyes.
On Nik Corrall's set of rickety scaffolding (made by STUFISH Entertainment Architects), lit with great blasts of light by Jai Morjaria and against a constant, evocative soundscape thanks to Elliott and Max Pappenheim, Holden slips between the characters, creating with quick ease and warm humour these people that his narrator lived and loved among. His language is as energetic as his performance, full of diamond sharp sketches of people, places and things.
The writing, realistic and vital, is underpinned by strongly poetic passages, that lend the story shape and meaning. When Chicago House arrives in the nightclub Heaven, for example, and Michael and Dave go dancing, the DJ "dropped those discs onto their felt-covered turntables … like a vicar
dropping the body of Christ into the outstretched arms of a hungry mass." Later, when Michael himself believes he is about to die and dances an ecstasy-fuelled rite, calling out the names of all those who have died, that image gathers resonance.
Cruise is not perfect; at what was on opening night a fairly extended 90-minutes, it feels a bit long and there are passages where Holden's enthusiasm becomes prolix. But it is a remarkable tour-de-force, directed with inventive control by Bronagh Lagan, and powered by Holden's passionate, loving performance which conjures and celebrates all these lost men. Its communal compassion is a terrific way to return to the stalls, a validation of all theatre can do.