Cruise: Duchess Theatre

Jef Hall-Flavin at Cruise

With the recent success of The Inheritance in the West End and on Broadway, the blockbuster Channel 4 TV mini-series It’s a Sin, and the new Israeli film Sublet, it’s easy to think that an intergenerational fascination is emerging in the gay zeitgeist, including Jack Holden’s Cruise, which opened recently in London’s West End for a limited engagement. Popular culture may like to characterize millennials as dismissive of history (“OK boomer”), but if the popularity of these shows is an indicator, there is a hunger among today’s 20-somethings for much deeper investigations into the legacy of the AIDS era. Without the societal struggles of their forebears, gay white male millennials in Western democracies seem to be looking to the recent past to answer questions about their identity, through the stories of those who lived through it.

 

Image credit: Pamela Raith Photography.

 

Solo performance demands a certain kind of attention, whereas plays like The Inheritance (with its cast of a baker’s dozen) don’t require the same elasticity of the audience’s imagination nor the performers’ skills. One actor playing some 20 characters is a thrilling dare for both actor and audience, best experienced live.

Happily, Holden’s Cruise exploits the gifts of theatre with quicksilver shifts in time and space, live music, and ultimately a poignant story worth hearing.

Holden’s autobiographical monopolylogue hangs on the relationship between young Jack, a newly trained volunteer in an LGBTQ+ call centre, and the 50-year-old Michael, who calls the hotline on the anniversary of his lover’s death from AIDS in 1986. Based on an actual call Holden received as a volunteer a decade ago, Michael’s story points out a generational naiveté in Jack, exposing a divide between himself and the “old gay men” who lived through the AIDS crisis when so many around them didn’t. Having been diagnosed with HIV and given no more than four years to live, Michael’s story of what should have been his “last night on earth” expresses the fear and rage of a generation, refracted through a 2021 kaleidoscope of 1980s music.

 

Image credit: Pamela Raith Photography.

 

Much can be forgiven as you’re watching the talented, 30-something Holden tell his story to the sounds of John Elliott’s brilliant musicscape. Holden’s description of his vanilla 22-year-old self with a “nasal, middle-class voice” makes him likable from the start as a self-effacing narrator, and his precision in evoking characters without caricature is impressive. Also likable is the light touch and quick pace from director Bronagh Lagan. So then, what’s to forgive? Aside from Nik Corrall’s rather shaky revolving set providing an obstacle course for Jai Morjaria’s adept lighting design, and the ever-present smoke machines blowing relentlessly in Holden’s face, the overworked alliteration and strained rhyming couplets in the text made some phrases thud like self-conscious juvenilia. Luckily the distractions in the stagecraft couldn’t overpower the acting, nor did the awkward poetry outweigh the witty and affecting prose.

Elliott’s ever-present original music matched wits with Holden’s shapeshifting and held the production aloft. Performed miraculously by just Elliott alone, his seemingly effortless soundtrack wasn’t mere accompaniment to Holden’s vocal numbers, it served as scene-setting underscoring and characterizing commentary all at once. Sharing the inspired sound design with Max Pappenheim, sampled instruments, sound effects, and whiffs of familiar songs and club beats wafted in and out of the soundscape whenever required. In between Holden’s emotive renditions of iconic songs like Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind” and Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”, Elliott merged with the emotional timbre of the narrative in a celebratory elegy to the birth of the synth — and the death of a generation of gay men in 1980s Soho.

 

Image credit: Pamela Raith Photography.