It’s been a strange year, we all know it. Some of us found out we were brilliant bread bakers, others discovered they had a fitness fanatic within them, and some just hid under the covers and waited for the world to stop being a really scary place.
Jack Holden however decided to sit down and write the play Cruise, an account of his experience working at Switchboard, the UK’s LGBT+ helpline, and one particular story he was told.
As I walked into the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End on Thursday night, the black and smokey industrial nightclub set (design by Nik Corrall & Stufish entertainment), perfect club lighting by Jai Morjaria, and house music with live drumming subtly being played by John Elliott combine to transport me to some of those long lost London clubs of yesteryear, like The Tube, Substation, and Soundshaft. After a year of venue closures this has quite the impact. I’m immediately reminded of the importance of the queer clubs and bars to the fabric of the city and its community and I find myself lamenting the loss of them to apps and Crossrail, already the evocative memories of queer spaces and people of my past start flooding back. Good start!
As the music builds to a crescendo ready for the beat to drop, we are suddenly with Jack (Jack Holden), a young somewhat naive 22-year-old who thinks he knows it all and wants to ‘give something back’. Jack sets the scene, as a new volunteer at Switchboard. He describes the characters in the office like Ryan, and Kevin, deftly switching between the personas. No impersonations here, just a subtle nod to who they are and wonderful character descriptions are enough for us to follow the narrative.
What follows is mostly focused on Michael, a man in his fifties who Jack ends up taking a reluctant call from. From this point on we are transported to 1980s London and follow Michael’s journey upon arrival in Soho—the city’s then gay and bohemian district, where you could end up finding a room in a townhouse for free, as long as you paid the “rent”, which amounted to two chats a day with Lady Lennox, the fur-laden grand dame of old Soho’s drinking establishments—all the way through to his ‘last night on Earth’, in 1989.
All the places and characters that Michael encounters are evocatively drawn by Holden, clearly guided by director Bronagh Lagan. The literal highs and lows of discovering that liberated pocket of the world where being LGBTQ+ wasn’t considered an oddity or a tragedy, but celebrated and welcomed. We meet a host of friends and lovers who populate Michael’s world—DJ Fingers, Fat Sandy, The Nymphs, Polari Gordon, Slutty Dave, and more—creating a montage of energy and excitement, celebrating what life and a future has to offer. But it’s the 80s, we all know what is coming and the unignorable shadow of AIDS looms. A rich narrative unfolds, which I won’t got into here. I simply urge you to see this urgent, moving, and necessary piece of theatre.
This is our queer history and one that must be told and retold. If we’ve realized anything over the past year it’s that when major events affect the mainstream, things get done, but the hard truth is that during the 80s the queer community was left to cling on to whatever scraps of help we could get whilst the world continued and looked on in fear and disdain. The parallels to recent times are sensitively shared.
Holden is supported with music by Elliott in perfect sync. The design and direction let the dynamic writing take centre stage, allowing for a powerhouse performance and vocals that move and enthrall. At times you’ll find yourself being lifted up and taken on a wave of really good ecstasy. Now that is a wild night out worthy of climbing out from under those covers and returning to the West End for.
By Ralph Bogard @RalphBogard
The world premiere of Cruise, written and performed by Jack Holden (War Horse), opened at London’s Duchess Theatre on May 18th and runs until June 13th 2021. Tickets on sale CruiseThePlay.co.uk.
The venue will be operating at 50% capacity in line with the current government guidelines. Safety measures at the Duchess Theatre include hand sanitisation, face coverings, track and trace, contactless tickets, temperature testing and the regular deep cleans across the building.