No, Jack Holden’s play is not about Tom, though the film star does get referenced along the way. In fact, Cruise
is a vigorously acted history lesson that doubles as a vital performance opportunity for the author, a 30-year-old actor (his credits include War Horse
) who doubles as its lone performer. Joined by an arresting DJ in John Elliott who is on hand to spin a synth-heavy score that keeps the beat with the unfolding tale of woe but also resilience, Holden has landed pride of place in a post-pandemic West End that is opening its doors to smaller shows to begin with before letting in the heavy hitters later on. (The Duchess
is normally home to The Play That Goes Wrong,
an entertainment that couldn’t be more different from Cruise
in just about every way.)
In fact, I got a taster of Cruise last month via a nicely realised film of the material that was shot at Shoreditch Town Hall and functioned as a place-holder of sorts to the enlarged-seeming evening that is on view here.
As before, Holden plays a switchboard operator at an LGBTQ+ call centre who is taken on a whirlwind ride backwards into a gay world that young Jack (the character has the same name as the actor) wasn’t around to experience firsthand. Through the elaborate chronicles of a far-older caller named Michael, Jack gains an understanding of how the gay community got here from there. Michael’s story, in turn, acts both as a celebration of survival and an acknowledgment of the losses sustained along the way. “We carry on,” the play tells us. “What else can we do?” That rhetorical question places Cruise on a spectrum that includes The Inheritance and It’s A Sin, to cite two other recent reminders of a fraught period whose legacy for those of a certain age is still very much alive.
A paean to a sybaritic Soho of a vanished era, Cruise namechecks the bars and, well, cruising locales of an earlier era, while the music encompasses Gloria Gaynor and Patsy Cline and many others besides. Holden brings a lovely singing voice to passages that find him leading vocally from the front, even as his script requires multiple shifts in character that must be exhausting to perform night after night: the author in Holden hasn’t given the actor an easy task.
We hear of people who go by monikers like “Fingers” and “Slutty Dave,” which at times give the writing the feel of a raunchier Damon Runyon saga for a more sexually aware time. But for most of Cruise, one is aware of Michael making his way through one plague (AIDS) just as Jack in our COVID-defined age has been navigating his way through another. Michael isn’t sure at first if he wants to talk to Jack, who may be too young to take on board what this veteran of a bruised and bruising litany of loss has to impart. But their age difference makes possible the gathering gusto of a narrative that takes Jack over before Michael ultimately deposits his protégé of sorts at the end so much the wiser.
As directed by Bronagh Lagan, here marking a fabulous leap into the mainstream after years of fine work off West End, this three-dimensional Cruise could at times rein itself in: there are moments to be sure when less would be more. But as if propelled by Jai Morjaria’s adrenalin-fuelled lighting, Cruise pulses with a hedonistic abandon of its own only to emerge out the other side, Jack an auditor who is newly empowered by wisdom and compassion, too. That left the collective auditors — namely the audience — to rise at the end as one, not in the all-too-familiar kneejerk standing ovation of old but as if giving renewed voice to the power that comes from being together, whether in art or life or, commemoratively speaking, even death.
Cruise is at the Duchess Theatre to 13 June. Cruise tickets are on sale now on London Theatre.
Photo credit: Jack Holden in Cruise (Photo by Pamela Raith Photography)