As the U.K. begins reopening in the wake, fingers crossed, of the pandemic, the idea of the reopening the West End with a new solo show written and performed by a debuting playwright is something of a gamble. Not only is the show running for just a month in the Duchess Theatre with a socially distanced capacity of 250 (down from 495), but the show’s subject matter is stalked by death. Yet Jack Holden’s “Cruise” confounds expectations by being an exultant embodiment of high-energy life.
The opening is sly. Crisply directed by Bronagh Lagan, Holden plays a version of himself, a near-novice volunteer answering the phones at Switchboard, the U.K.’s invaluable real-life helpline serving the LGBT+ community since its founding in 1974. Naively confident but comically out of his depth, he’s shown the ropes by his older trainer, whom Holden not-so-subtly patronizes. But working a shift alone one night, he starts to engage with an older caller who, initially exasperated by Holden’s lack of experience and empathy, decides to teach the young listener a lesson. At which point not just the narrative but the narrator changes.
Jai Morjaria’s fierce lighting and the evocative music on the ever-present electronic soundtrack, manipulated by D.J. and composer John Elliott standing atop the scaffolding set, is suddenly pumped up to the max. Michael, the caller, takes over, pouring out not just his life story as an 18-year-old gay man coming to London but, specifically, the story of Soho, the then-secret gay world within the world of London nightlife at the start of the Eighties.
It being that precise moment in gay life means that we’re on the brink on the arrival of AIDS (the time and place so vividly explored by the recent hit TV mini-series “It’s a Sin”). But where screenwriter Russell T. Davies told a multi-strand story, Holden’s focus is on the sexual, social and sentimental education of one man whose life serves to illuminate the world to which he yearns to belong.
Alternately rebuffed and befriended, Michael is alert and very much alive. Hungry for experience, he hurls himself into a satisfyingly fast-paced sequence of misadventures and joyous awakenings, all charted with nicely wry self-knowledge. The portrait is also built via the viewpoints of a cast of nicely sketched characters who, with nothing but Holden’s subtly-controlled physicality, leap to life.
He vividly conjures everyone from elderly, self-dramatizing Lady Lennox, encased in ancients furs, who becomes his landlady; a pair of preeners; hirsute hunk Slutty Dave who becomes his lover; to a punctilious, truth-telling, Quentin Crisp-type who, between bouts of fervent cottaging, dispenses sage advice in a maroon suit.
All is going splendidly until the day when he and Dave discover they are HIV-positive. It’s Feb. 29, 1984, when the diagnosis was a death sentence with a maximum four-year term. At which point, they decide to live life to the max and go out with a bang.
Charged-up, non-stop hedonism is usually far more pleasurable to experience than to watch. But Holden’s writing (mostly) banishes history lessons and hysteria in favor of unexpected, self-deprecating wit and punchy joy. Langan’s driving direction keeps up the momentum and the linking of Holden’s often consciously poetic writing with the soundtrack is hugely effective.
A few purple passages would benefit from trims to stop some of the later sections from flagging and the undeniably touching brief coda that brings everything to the present doesn’t quite escape sentimentality. But those are tiny blemishes in an impressive debut in which strong sentiment is properly earned.