I didn’t know what it means to ‘cruise’ before watching this punchy, poignant solo play about HIV and 80’s nightlife in Soho. It is, for those also unfamiliar, the act of exploring a certain area for sexual partners. That’s made clear not long into Cruise, but its name could well also pertain to the Top Gun actor too, and a journey. In this case, the journey is a 100-minute, 100mph thrill ride.
The setting, at least to begin with, is a call centre for the LGBTQ+ support charity, Switchboard. Jack (Ten Per Cent’s Jack Holden), a 22-year-old volunteer with ageist views about older gay people and a confident comedic delivery despite an awkward personality, takes a series of calls on a shift. The most compelling, however, is one from Michael, a cockney geezer with a stiff lip (rightly so), and for the rest of the evening we are, like Jack, utterly enthralled by the true story he has to tell.
It is, in many ways, overpowering in its staging. Glowing, searing lighting design from Prema Mehta blasts the audience at regular intervals, otherwise it pulses with the gorgeous blue and red hues of the typical nightclub. The ambiance is accentuated by the presence of musician John Patrick Elliot’s thumping electronic undertones, beginning before curtain up and at times drowning out Holden’s dialogue. It’s better in the second half of the one act play, but even then, his absence is noticeable in moments of quiet, with chilling silence. The optimist in me likes to see the initial poor sound design as deliberate – the unpolished, unclean imperfections so perfectly resembling the messy fumbling of raves in a sweaty club.
We learn Michael fell in love with a man nicknamed Slutty Dave, who we come to learn has HIV. The tragic, finite nature of the diagnosis inspires an existential attitude in them both. Pure white lighting shines on the arches of Nik Corrall’s set as Michael and Dave have an ethereal experience with music – one which is almost religious in nature, a spiritual and cultural awakening where clubbing becomes a ritual, and a rite of passage.
There’s no denying that Holden is an exceptional talent. As a performer, he nails the masculine and feminine singing styles, even though his embodiment of feminine characters mostly extends to placing his hands on his hips, which feels repetitive and bizarre. Meanwhile as a playwright, his debut hits the hallmarks of a sensational solo play, awash with the usual vivid similes and metaphors (one about the phone chord wrapping around his heart is particularly emotive) and a satisfying conclusion which comes full circle.
It’s terrifically transcendental in just how much it says. Cruise as a name encapsulates so many of the play’s themes. The messages of the 80s around community camaraderie and perseverance is not only powerful for such a marginalised group like LGBTQ+ folk today, in the now, but it is truly life-affirming for anyone fortunate to hear Michael’s story. His enlightenment all those years ago is so deeply affecting and enlightening in the 2020s. Holden’s play is as much a dizzying dash back as it is a hopeful look and drive forwards. The jolting between the two eras is simply electric, the energy contained inside the production is immense and influential.
In a loud return to the West End, Cruise generates another brilliant buzz which is impossible to ignore.
Cruise is now playing at the Apollo Theatre until 4 September.
No information about access performances is available on the play’s official website – contacting the theatre directly is advised.
Production Images: Pamela Raith.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Cruise’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.