Writer: Jack Holden
Director: Bronagh Lagan
With Channel 4’s It’s A Sin reigniting an interest in the 1980s and the AIDS epidemic, Jack Holden’s one-man show Cruise opens at the Duchess Theatre at the right time. Full of music and lyricism, Holden tells the moving story a young man called Michael who arrives in Soho in the 1980s; the next eight years are joyous and painful in equal measure.
Of course, for some who lived during AIDS, this period is never far from their minds, and while TV may have forgot the hardships that the gay community went through, theatre and film have often returned to the time, dealing with intergenerational differences and the unfinished grieving of the community’s survivors. Just a few years ago the Young Vic’s The Inheritance transferred to the West End while Robin Campillo’s film 120 BPM (Beats per Minute) examined AIDS activism in Paris, both to critical acclaim.
But perhaps what It’s A Sin managed to do is bring the period closer to younger generations, queer and non-queer, who may have not really understood that the 1980s was far worse than bad haircuts and New Romantic tunes. Holden’s play begins with a young man wishing he were around in the 1980s, for the music and the nightlife, until a phone call he takes while volunteering at a LGBTQ+, switchboard encourages him to change his mind. The caller Michael begins to tell his story.
For those who are old enough, this story of Soho’s bright lights and eccentric characters may be familiar but Holden’s performance is lively and authentic. As well as playing Jack, the helpline volunteer and Michael, the fresh faced boy in Soho, he plays ancient dowagers, no-nonsense barmaids, jaded drag queens and hedonistic twinks. Holden’s portrayal of Soho may be a little larger than life, but so was Soho in the old days before the gentrifiers moved in, and before the dating apps killed off good old-fashioned cruising.
Holden is incredible, never missing a beat or a note in the 90 minutes he spends on stage. He’s not quite alone, however, as musician John Elliott provides a suitably electronic soundtrack that accompanies Michael’s trips to various clubs such as Heaven and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. And it’s these scenes, where Michael is dancing away his woes, that are most effective and Jai Morjaria’s lighting design excitedly conjures up drugged-up dance floors when raving was a means of survival.
Nik Corrall’s set of metal bars set up on stage like scaffolding does not resemble in any way the alleys and narrow streets of Soho, but it’s a functional apparatus that allows the story to turn from bars to recording studios and Greek Street flats and it does hold a few surprises in the key high-octane scenes. There is not one wasted space or moment here; director Bronagh Lagan ensures that, like when faced with impending death, every second counts.
So successful is Holden in managing this conversation between the two generations there is a sense that Cruise should be participatory and that we should be on the dance floor with him, holding on tightly to those who didn’t make it while looking trustingly into the future. This surely is a dance for us all.
Runs until 13 June 2021