Written and performed by Jack Holden, Cruise marks Holden’s first professional playwriting credit. It’s a one-man show that, as a sort of autobiography, has an odd and potentially problematic conceit. Holden explains that at 22 he volunteered for Switchboard, the UK’s confidential LGBTQ+ listening service, who are partners on this production. Sitting at a makeshift desk at the centre of some revolving wooden scaffolding, Holden recounts one fateful morning when he, hungover and sleepless, received a call from an older man named Michael. After Holden reveals he’s feeling fragile from his big night out, Michael proceeds to prove to Holden what a real night out looks like.
We’re transported to 29th February, 1988. Holden morphs into Michael and tells the story of his supposed last night on earth. Exactly four years earlier, he and his partner, ‘slutty’ Dave, were diagnosed with HIV and informed they had at most four years to live. And so, greatly aided by John Elliott’s live, throbbing music, Holden jumps about the stage and climbs on the scaffolding, shifting satisfactorily but somewhat unimaginatively between a slew of characters as he recounts in slightly grating verse Michael’s coming-of-age story tinged with tragedy: the sex-filled air of 1980s Soho, the boarded up bars on Old Compton, the pulsating music, the gnawing fear, the flickering rage and cavernous grief.
Every so often we’re reminded of the clunky framing device, and Holden pops back onto his desk to react to Michael’s poignant story. And yes, Michael’s story is poignant. It’s rich and devastating and life-affirming and profound. It’s the kind of story that sticks with you, and some parts are well constructed in Holden’s writing. He paints a vivid portrait of gay Soho in the 1980s, referencing the Coach and Horses, the Colony Room Club and the Admiral Duncan. There are some strong theatrical moments, too. In a chilling moment, smartly directed by Bronagh Lagan, Michael says goodbye in a crusty-seated cinema to a thin and ailing Dave, who suddenly experiences seizures and dies as Tom Cruise struts across the screen. Less successful is when Holden stretches his acting as a queen at the RVT, singing a beautiful but static rendition of ‘Is That All There Is’.
Fundamentally, though, it’s entirely unclear why Holden is the one telling this story in the first place. The framing device offers little except to position Holden at the centre of a story that is not his own. Perhaps the point is that through Michael’s call, Holden gains insight into the value of conversing with his queer elders. After Michael hangs up, Holden reverses his opinion on another Switchboard volunteer, an older man named Kevin, who at first Holden dismisses as a leery older man. But if Cruise is a show about valuing queer history and advocating for cross-generational connections in the queer community, then why make it a one-man show wherein a panoply of varied queer voices are strained, filtered, muted and condensed into one voice? If it is a show about dialogue, why make it a monologue?
It’s also not convincing that Michael’s story is best told through the medium of theatre. Michael is a sound engineer who has a passion for Chicago house music. While Elliott’s soundscapes do a lot of good work, the Duchess Theatre’s proscenium and velvet seats jar with the setting. It all sits a little too far outside of seedy Soho, even with the neon pink ‘Cruise’ sign branding the back of the stage, masquerading as a bar.
To be told a powerful story is not the same as to be given permission to share one, and it’s not clear Holden understands this difference. There’s the question of consent that sits uneasily on the edge of the stage. And if the piece is in fact an artful work of fiction, then Holden’s connection to the material within the show remains under-examined.
After Michael lives through and way past his drug-and-dance-fueled last night, Holden returns to himself and speaks directly to the audience. He engages with Michael’s story somewhat superficially: after jokingly lamenting about celebrating his 30th birthday, Holden solemnly notes Michael’s life reminds him that there is a gift in getting older. It’s a bizarrely tied bow that doesn’t quite fit its package, and fails to either adequately explain or explore why Holden serves as our narrator.
He goes on to explain the inspiration for the piece: walking through Soho this year, amidst another pandemic, he was reminded of the story he had heard ten years ago and felt compelled to tell it. There’s no examination of the nature of memory, of how Holden’s own memory reveals or distorts the story, of how memory might inform Michael’s own relationship to his past, to the people in it, to Holden himself. Nor is there an examination of how collective grief works, or what Switchboard, a community-oriented helpline, is and can be in times of crisis.
Holden forsakes any such complexities, and chooses to position himself at the heart of the story: he is the tour guide, recounting to his audience a genuinely moving narrative of resilience, grief, poetry, hope. Ultimately, though, one can’t help but feel that Holden himself is the tourist.
Cruise is on at Duchess Theatre until 13th June 2021. More info and tickets here.