Jack Holden's brilliant exposition of pre and post HIV Soho relives the 1980s
I am aware I’m doing this wrong. I’m aware I should be listening to the caller, not the caller listening to me!”
If the magic of theatre is storytelling then Jack Holden is a true magician. Ostensibly a one man play, Cruise is much more than a single performance. For a start there is John Elliott on keyboard, guitar and making Cruise a play with live music, but Jack Holden brings his characters to life with different voices, accents, songs and body language. His words are a rich tapestry, like poetry, with plenty to smile at.
Jack Holden has written this play based on a real life encounter while working as a young volunteer on a LGBT+ switchboard. Like the Tale of the Ancient Mariner, Jack is transfixed by a caller who discerns Jack’s lack of age and experience and who, at first, doesn’t say why he’s calling. The caller is Michael, now in 2020, an older gay man who lived through the queer cultural life of Soho in the 1980s when HIV was striking down his friends and acquaintances, funerals when everyone wore black. Jack’s descriptions of his switchboard job frame the long call from Michael, and lead to a change in Jack’s perspective and attitudes. Jack with little knowledge of gay history will experience through Michael, memories of the AIDS epidemic.
On arriving in London in 1980 from one of the dismal Medway towns, aged 18, Michael falls on his feet and is given accommodation in exchange for conversation and companionship from an old lady, with a house in Camden Town and a penchant for fox fur. He finds work at a recording studio with Fingers, a musician and technical wizard. He is taken in by an American, Fat Sandy who “lived for cottaging and took me under his bingo wing.” Later he lives with twins, Jason and Jacob until Jack finds the hedonistic lifestyle they lead of promiscuous sex with innumerable partners, disruptive and intrusive. All the gay bars, pubs and restaurants of old Soho are recalled like a travelogue. We go to Heaven in Villiers Street where Fingers mixes the height of full-on thrusting Techno. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern has a drag artiste described in all her finery.
The set is best seen from the photos but this show is the complete, exciting experience of pulses of light, neon lit arches and doorways, lasers, as well as songs and cacophony, the music of the era. Well directed by Bronagh Lagan, with infinite variety using scaffolding towers for Jack and John to change level and scene.
These characters, described in graphic prose written by Holden, are so well evinced they come alive in our imagination. Jack Holden switches skilfully between complex characters with a brilliant eye for the quirky and the ridiculous, but with a warmth of understanding.
Michael tells us about meeting Dave, hearing him sing in a pub “You Were Always on My Mind” and falling in love. We feel the loss of a generation of gay men, of artists and musicians, writers and actors, enquiries about someone they haven’t seen for a while, meaning another friend lost. Like a production of Journey’s End, there is a final listing of the names of the gay departed: a poetic and tragic end resonating with the current loss of life from Covid.
How to people a one man show and make it chock full of passionate, breathing characters!
Written and performed by Jack Holden
Directed by Branagh Lagan
Director: Branagh Langan
Designer: Nik Corrall
Lighting Designer: Jai Morjaria
Music and Sound Designer: John Elliott
Additional Sound Design – Max Pappenheim
Videography: Jack Hextall
Movement: Sarah Golding
Produced by Aria Entertainment and Lambert Jackson
Productions in association with Shoreditch Town Hall.
Running Time: One hours 30 minutes without an interval
Booking to 13th June 2021
The Duchess Theatre
London WC2B 5LA
Rail/Tube: Charing Cross
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Duchess
on 21st May 2021