Jack Holden
Aria Entertainment and Lambert Jackson
Shoreditch Town Hall

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Jack Holden in Cruise Credit: Jack Hextall
Jack Holden in Cruise Credit: Jack Hextall
Jack Holden in Cruise with John Elliott Credit: Jack Hextall

Cruise is a remarkable piece of writing that here gets a remarkable performance from its author, staged in the cellarage of Shoreditch Town Hall directed by Bronagh Lagan and filmed in what is made to feel like a single take.

It begins with Jack revisiting his experience as a new volunteer answering calls on Switchboard, the LGBTQ+ helpline and listening service, and it is based on a true story he then heard from one of his callers. It is a story that looks back to the hedonistic gay world of Soho in the early 1980s, a world that was soon to find itself at the heart of a new pandemic.

As Jack learns how to handle calls, under guidance from experienced supervisor Kevin, Holden is both narrator and everyone else: Kevin, the callers and the people in all of their stories, a succession of clearly differentiated characters and voices, some comic, some tragic, until there is a call from a man called Michael who takes him back to the 1980s to tell him his story.

Michael came to London escaping the boredom of a small Medway town in 1980 for a Soho very different from today’s scene. Its pubs and clubs were not open to all eyes: an Old Compton Street whose doors led to another dimension, a succession of X-rated Narnias to this 18-year-old new arrival. When a barmaid “with hair scraped back like a Croydon facelift” directs him across the room to the pile of dead fox that is bony handed, many-bangled Lady Lennox, we are already caught up in his story.

From the home Lady Lennox provides him in Camden Town Mike continues his education with Fat Sandy back in Soho, clashes with Jacob and Jason (“the nymphs of Greek Street"), settles into a recording studio job with Fingers and then finds happiness with Slutty Dave, the guy with kind eyes who becomes the great love of his life.

February 29, 1984, leap year, is when Mike and Dave are both diagnosed with HIV and given four years to live. They sell up their home and set about living to the full in the time that is left to them, but Dave only makes two years and, on February 29, 1988, Mike sets out to celebrate his last night.

This is a vigorous script that gains extra energy from its bouncing rhythms, its rhymes and its alliteration. John Elliott provides and plays a score that echoes the '80s and helps drive things and Jack Holden delivers a performance that is constantly changing in mood but gripping the attention non-stop for ninety minutes with its picture of life as it once was. Cruise is a vibrant piece of storytelling that is also a kind of memorial to those who were lost then and even looks back to an even earlier era of pre-Wolfenden Soho life.

This streamed version of Cruise is a considerable achievement and it will be followed next month by its live world première, which will reopen the Duchess Theatre for a run of just 4 weeks from 18 May to 13 June.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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