Cruise – Apollo Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Jack Holden

Director: Bronagh Lagan

Cruise is one of the most significant productions to open since pandemic restrictions lifted, and while Jack Holden’s born-digital one-man show is an extraordinary experience in storytelling, it also signifies an important landscape shift for commercial theatre. Who gets to tell a story on a non-subsidised West End stage has changed, and when Cruise opened at the Duchess Theatre in May last year, it not only earned an Olivier nomination, but it paved the way for shows like The Last Five Years and Public Domain that found similar critical and audience acclaim. Back for a second run, this time at the Apollo Theatre on the very edges of the Soho it venerates, Cruise is as sensational as ever.

As a young man, new to London, Jack is nervously working at the LGTBQ+ Switchboard when he receives a call from Michael, an older man, who takes Jack back to the 1980s to experience Soho in its heyday. A riot of casual sex, drugs and dancing, this beloved network of streets are filled with personalities, verve and hope for the men who flocked to Soho to escape their restrictive suburban homes and find themselves. But a shadow is forming in Michael’s love story and Jack is about to receive an important lesson in community.

Holden’s show is an extraordinary piece of theatre, filling the stage with vivid images of places, characters and the atmosphere of Soho 40 years ago, immersing the audience in a story that takes place across two distinct eras. That most of this is created in words alone with Holden himself as the only performer is the most surprising aspect of Cruise, and as the audience spills onto the streets afterwards, you could easily believe that a large cast was needed to conjure up the tens of individuals whose lives have been so well represented.

Constructed essentially as a story within a story, Holden adopts a dual narrative structure in which the character of Jack speaks directly to the audience, recounting his memory of a formative call when storytelling duties are handed over mid-flow to Michael who is essentially speaking to Jack. These layers of memory are given depth and pace through recreated scenes as Michael guides the audience through eight significant years in the 1980s where everything changed for Soho and its communities as HIV/AIDS starts to tear through the revellers.

And Cruise manages that shift with considerable skill, capturing the buzz and excitement of the area, the possibilities of adventure and the carefree lightness of being young but punctuated with poignant moments of reality. Michael lingers just long enough on the effects of the virus, the unknowns and fear it created when he starts to see friends at funerals more often than in pubs and clubs, all the while determined to get the most out of his time while he still can. And Cruise finds a deep and affecting tenderness for these men, lost boys called to Soho who know the clock is ticking and whose names are listed so meaningfully in one of Michael’s final speeches.

Music composed and performed by John Patrick Elliott is interwoven throughout as a means of communication, collective expression, even worship that draw men together to dance and to celebrate. It signifies love as ‘Slutty Dave’ sings a quivering version of Always on My Mind, a pointed ending as a drag artiste performs Is That All There Is, and the adventurous glamour of the movies as the central lovers watch Top Gun – a scene that has added meaning in 2022 with the recent release of Top Gun: Maverick.

Nik Corrall’s multi-purpose set made of metal rigging easily becomes one-bedroom flats, drinking dens and the modern-day call centre, while Prema Mehta’s rich lighting design generates the electric pink and blue tones of the 1980s as well as stark black and whites that support the changes of mood and tone, helping to guide the audience through the show and underline its moments of excess just as effectively as its terrible sadness.

Cruise is a celebration of London as it once was as well as of the men who lived and died in its streets. But it is also a hopeful piece about understanding, identity and the shared history of veterans and the generations that followed them to Soho. Holden has written one of the great plays of the last year so don’t miss this second chance to go cruising.

Runs until 4 September 2022

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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