Jack Holden’s play is a love letter to the queer veterans of the HIV/AIDS crisis and the essential venues they frequented
BY ELEANOR NOYCE, IMAGES BY PAMELA RAITH
Written in the midst of lockdown, Jack Holden’s CRUISE is both a self-described celebration of queer culture and a kaleidoscopic musical and spoken word tribute to the veterans of the AIDS crisis. Returning to London’s West End for the first time since its debut in May 2021, the play has upsized to the historic Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. A few steps from its setting in Soho, this new location feels apt.
Depicting the story of Michael, a young, gay man living in Soho in the 1980s, CRUISE is a journey – an ode – to queer life in the capital. When both he and his boyfriend Dave – affectionately named “slutty Dave” by his friends and ex-lovers – are diagnosed with HIV in 1984, they’re given four years to live. As the clock begins to tick, the pair decide not to waste one second: they sell their flat, hit the town every night and treat themselves to decadent silverwear for their kitchen. If the next four years – their last four years – are anything at all, they might as well be a hedonistic blur. The entire voyage leads up to Michael’s last night on earth: 29th February 1988, four years to the day since he was diagnosed.
Speaking to the multi-faceted talents of its writer Jack Holden, CRUISE is a one-man show inspired by the stories he heard whilst volunteering at Switchboard, the second-oldest LGBT+ helpline in the UK. Set up in 1974 – then known as the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard – it was used as much as a source of information as it was comfort and advice. There were little to no resources for LGBTQI people to navigate their spaces, and before the days of the internet, many would call up enquiring about the best gay bars.
Embodying characters from the hysterical DJ Fingers to New York queen Fat Sandy, Holden incorporates essential elements of queer culture throughout. The Polari-speaking legends, the cottaging, the rough encounters in public bathrooms, the bears and the cheesy dancefloor-frequenting twinks are all there.
We journey from the debut of Chicago House to the introduction of ecstasy to the dancefloor; CRUISE is a gut-wrenching narration of the love and loss endemic throughout the HIV/AIDS crisis that ravaged the LGBTQI community in the 1980s and 1990s, but, in many ways, it’s a love letter to the veterans that came before. To the queer culture that’s always been there, with its spirit passing across the bustling pavements of Old Compton Street and the slightly more understated, subtle energies of Dean Street and Soho Square. The original gay venues – loved and lost – are referenced throughout, from the still-existing Heaven and The Admiral Duncan to the sadly perished The Brief Encounter. One stand-out scene depicts a hairy drag queen’s performance at The Royal Vauxhall Tavern.
Indeed, Soho’s landscape has been irreversibly altered over the years: gentrification has forced 60% of London’s LGBTQI spaces into closure in the last 10 years alone, and the future is uncertain. Now, there’s just one lesbian bar remaining – She on Old Compton Street – and increasingly, LGBTQI nights from Queer House Party to PXSSY PALACE tour venues to provide inclusive, safe parties for all queer and trans people.
A multi-faceted journey, CRUISE utilises the entire stage and more. The rotating dancefloor is at the centre of the stage, and multi-talented composer, performer and sound designer John Patrick Elliott provides stunning sonics, giving musical life to the karaoke bars, nightclubs and night-fallen streets of Soho alike. The result is a true feat.
CRUISE plays at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, London, W1D 7EZ from 13 August-4 September 2022. Ticketing information can be found via cruisetheplay.co.uk.
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