Impressive. I know theatre reviews ought to be a bit more wordy but ‘impressive’ pretty much covers it. Written and performed by Jack Holden, Cruise is 100 life-affirming minutes of joy and sadness – a love letter to those who lived, loved and were lost at the height of the AIDS epidemic. 

While Cruise marks his debut as a writer, you might recognise Holden. After training at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, his stage roles have included War Horse and Ink. On TV, he recently appeared in Marriage and Ten Percent

Cruise was inspired by a call he received while volunteering for Switchboard, the national LGBT+ helpline. The play centres on Michael, an irrepressible, middle-aged man and the hedonistic life he enjoyed in 1980s London.

On stage, Holden is dazzling and spellbinding, racing around the dark metal set, vividly portraying Michael and the array of different characters he encounters along the way. He must be knackered after each performance.

Photo by Pamela Raith Photography

“Oh yes,” he laughs. “It is killer but a good sleep every night and not doing much in the day helps to get ready for it. Sometimes it does get weird though. Speaking to yourself for an hour and a half isn’t the most normal of things to do. Luckily each passage has a distinct musical identity so if I ever drift off course I can listen to the music and be reminded where I am in the piece.”

Holden shares the stage with musician and composer John Patrick Elliott, who provides the musical heartbeat. His role is pivotal in making the soundtrack a character in itself, particularly during the big club moments when the lights glare and all fears temporarily dissolve on the dance floor. Elliott’s musical presence definitely gives Cruise its distinctive identity.

“For sure,” Holden agrees. “The play is wrongly billed as a one-man show as it’s definitely more of a duet. John’s music makes up more than half of the piece. It’s so well judged – emotive when it needs to be, stripped back in the quieter moments and then, when you need it to blow the roof off, it does. He’s a genius.”

Cruising in the capital

First performed in London in 2021, Olivier-nominated Cruise covers all the fun and the thrills of the 80s but doesn’t shy away from the backdrop of fear which became ever more present as people fell ill or accrued huge credit card debts, thinking their number was up.

Many members of the audience will have lived through that era. I imagine the sense of responsibility to be authentic and do the subject matter justice is immense.

“I do feel the weight of it a little,” Holden confesses. “I didn’t consider this responsibility creating it, but when I started performing the show I appreciated that it was a big gamble. I’m fortunate to have been given first-hand accounts from my older gay friends and others in the gay community who provided the essence and texture it needed.”

The research and attention to detail is immaculate as Michael’s tale takes us through London’s historic gay bars during a period when people danced as if there was no tomorrow as, for far too many, there wasn’t.

Photo by Pamela Raith Photography

“The part where I reel off the names of all the people Michael lost was based on one of my older friends listing all the funerals he went to,” explains Holden. “I also had a lot of experience from working on the gay switchboard so there was plenty of source material.”

He continues: “Most nights after the show someone stops me and says that they were there, lost friends and how horrible it was. They thank me for telling their story and it being a testament to what they endured. Someone came to see it whose parents had both been doctors in the 90s working with HIV patients. She was so moved because she remembered how deeply her parents were affected by being on the hospital wards. They were like surrogate parents because the real kin couldn’t face the shame or the reality of what they thought was going on. Deeply sad.”

It’s impossible not to be moved but, even in the inevitably sombre moments, things are handled with a light and sensitive touch, ensuring humour is never far from the surface. A particular highlight is the drag act venomously spitting out a version of Is That All There Is?. The pace is frenetic but the audience never loses the plot or which character Holden is inhabiting.  

Cruise is also a timely reminder for a younger generation to recognise how far treatment for HIV has progressed, but it doesn’t preach or beat people over the head with politics. Holden is pleased with the reaction he’s received from audience members not even born at the time the play is set.

“They’ve said some really nice things afterwards or online. I specifically wanted to write about someone who wasn’t an activist, just a man swept up in that awful, crazy time. More activist dramas like The Normal Heart are great but I didn’t want to foreground the political message, just represent lives cut short. The audience can take their own message from it. The response has been electric and its great to be able to bring that to people.”

The HIV legacy

In the early 90s, I was a media studies student (a ropey admission, I know). For a university project, I was fortunate enough to interview artist and film producer Derek Jarman who, at the time, was the only openly HIV positive person in the media. Jarman explained how this responsibility was a lot to carry but said he believed that being public was the only way to break down the stigma and ignorance.

Photo by Pamela Raith Photography

Around the same time, EastEnders introduced the first HIV positive character (Mark Fowler) on prime time TV. Perceptions of the disease have changed a lot in the past 30 years but it’s clear that Holden believes those original stories remain as resonant as ever.

“I was born in 1990 but the legacy and hangover from that time did affect my life and played into my understanding at first,” he admits. “Much of the fear of coming out is to do with your parents being scared for you because they think being gay is a lonely, dangerous way of life due to the long shadow cast by the AIDS crisis. You can also easily feel that way yourself and I try to explore that when playing the younger version of myself not as connected to the past of the queer community.”

Since Covid, some people have felt uncomfortable referring to AIDS as a ‘pandemic’, yet the parallels between the 1990s and the early 2020s are hard to ignore. A worldwide health crisis, people dying alone, an uncaring government.

“The differences between the two are also worth noting,” says Holden. “HIV affected a marginalised community so governments didn’t want to help out until they absolutely had to. Covid affected everyone equally and was bringing the world to its knees. This forced governments to act on it quickly. The speed at which action was taken and a treatment discovered was unprecedented.”

The fear factor that shrouded HIV at the time is ever present in the piece ,and the respect Holden has for this energetic, music-laden dance back to the darkest of times in LGBT+ history is obvious.

As I said, impressive.

By Drew Tosh

All images: Pamela Raith Photography

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Cruise is at HOME in Manchester until August 12, 2023. For more information, click here.