Writer: Jack Holden
Music: John Patrick Elliott
Director: Bronagh Lagan
In 2013, 23 year-old actor Jack Holden was working as a volunteer, taking calls on the LGBT+ helpline Switchboard. That experience – or rather the experience of one fateful call – sparked the idea for his first play, which recounts the highs and lows of the gay scene in 1980s London, as high-octane partying was cut brutally short by the onslaught of HIV.
While this is not untrodden dramatic ground – in the US, Tony Kushner’s 1993 Angels in America held nothing back about the impact of the virus at a time when HIV was still very much on people’s minds – it took until 2021 for anything quite as raw to reach UK TV audiences when Russell T Davies brought the story back into the public consciousness, and the media, with It’s A Sin. Holden’s play, written during lockdown, premiered in London’s West End in the same year.
When Michael, a 50-something man calls in a melancholy mood on the anniversary of his boyfriend’s untimely death, Jack is about to hear a heart-breaking story of the men who took Soho by storm. What gives Cruise a particularly contemporary feel is Holden himself at the centre of the story. “Wasn’t all that dangerous and scary” he asks, only to be told “That was the point of it”. From his Millennial/Gen Y perspective this is a story from the past, full of stuff that people refrained from talking about. A story full of revelations, of fear and of loss.
Holden, playing a version of himself along with a whole range of characters, takes on the entire script in an astoundingly pacy and direct performance. He’s a dexterous all-rounder – actor, singer, dancer, writer, poet, and he’s created a show that shows off all that talent. Holden holds the audience spellbound for an interval-less hour and forty minutes. This is story-telling at its most compelling. It would be very wrong, though, to describe this as a one man show. John Patrick Elliott, composer and performer, delivers a live soundtrack that brilliantly evokes the 80s and creates a pounding score that’s exquisitely delivered (Sound Design by Elliott and Max Pappenheim) at full volume. And while the set (by Nik Corrall) has a suitably club-industrial vibe, it’s the lighting design, by Prema Mehta that really creates the dark and dangerous atmosphere of late-night Soho.
Now we have all lived through the strange days of an incurable virus, perhaps we can start to better understand the dread and hopelessness experienced in the gay community when HIV arose seemingly out of nowhere. The difference is, of course, that the 1980s conversations about AIDS were covert, the political response at best indifferent, the gay community still completely misunderstood. Holden’s play is a tribute to those we loved and lost, a celebration of those who survived, but also a reminder of how far we’ve come.
Runs until 12 August 2023