Jack Holden with music by John Patrick Elliott
Aria Entertainment
HOME, Manchester

Listing details and ticket info...

Cruise Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Cruise Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Cruise Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Cruise Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Cruise Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Cruise Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Cruise was one of the first plays to be staged as theatreland timidly emerged from lockdown in 2021. The appeal at such a fraught time is obvious, with just two people on stage social distancing is easy to achieve. There is also a topical aspect—as the world comes to terms with the end of a health crisis, the play is a reminder of one from an earlier decade.

Be careful what you wish for. Jack Holden volunteers on Switchboard, a telephone helpline for the LGBT+ community. With the callowness of youth, he feels he belongs in a less antiseptic age when the gay scene did not revolve around assignations made on computer apps. He would prefer the 1980s—about which he has romantic opinions based upon music from the period. In the tradition of The Ghost of Christmas Past, Michael, Jack’s next caller, shatters any illusions by giving a chilling first-hand account of events in that period which are not celebrated.

The viewpoint of the play moves from Holden to Michael, who recounts his experiences as a gay teen in London’s Soho at a time when the gay lifestyle was more clandestine. Michael throws himself into the somewhat squalid scene, encountering a fascinating range of characters until he, and his lover Dave, discover they are HIV-positive. At that time, 1984, such a diagnosis amounts to a very limited life span, so Michael and Dave resolve to go out with a bang and squeeze as much experience as possible into their estimated four years.

Appropriately, as the play concerns a period where the public mood could jump from confusion to hysteria, director Bronagh Lagan sets a chaotic atmosphere. The dominant mood is one of hunger—Michael, being amongst the first gay generation who do not have to fear physical assault or public judgement, regards himself as invincible. Soho is grimy but liberated (the nightclubs evocatively described as a collection of X-rated Narnias) and his response is to behave as if at an all-you-can-eat buffet, consuming as much sensation as possible. The bitter irony is, of course, that he soon has something tangible to fear.

Nik Corrall’s set captures the sense of an underground, backstreet venue. A stark metal cage centre-stage is often kept in shadow but can change via blazing lights from a call centre to a night club to a shabby toilet. Even before the play begins, there is an ominous atmosphere with telephones ringing unanswered in the darkened set and searchlights lazily circling the audience.

The movie Top Gun is referenced in the play and John Patrick Elliott is a stunningly effective wingman for Holden. Elliott composes and performs live a swaggering soundtrack evoking the 1980s by way of an astonishing range of influences: disco, Chicago house. The soundtrack is so infectious at times, it is a shame the venue is seated. The driving impact of the sound design adds to the desperate urgency of Michael’s quest to exhaust all options for gratification before his time runs out.

Cruise serves as a tribute not just to the people who endured the AIDS crisis but also to the faded grandeur of Soho, which is portrayed as a melting pot welcoming anyone without judgement. The play is a triumph for writer / performer Jack Holden. There is the bittersweet sense of reaching the end of an era, not just in terms of Soho but of the vibrant individuals who populated the area. Michael is puzzled to encounter a character who speaks Polari, once a vital part of gay subculture, now largely outdated.

Holden creates larger-than-life characters with empathy and insight; ensuring however extreme their personalities they are people, not grotesques. Characters who once lived a clandestine lifestyle to avoid being attacked now do so because it offers the dark thrill of decadence. While the grim reality described in the play limits any sense of triumph, Cruise evokes a battered feeling of achievement and defiance by surviving against the odds.

In the current season, HOME has already hosted some vital dramas including The Merchant of Venice 1936 and Song from Far Away. Cruise continues this very welcome trend.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

*Some links, including Amazon,,, ATG Tickets, LOVEtheatre, BTG Tickets, Ticketmaster, LW Theatres and QuayTickets, are affiliate links for which BTG may earn a small fee at no extra cost to the purchaser.

Are you sure?