Theatre in London has survived Cromwellian abolition, plague and two world wars, so it should come as no surprise, as we take our first baby steps into post-Covid normality, that the West End will return to its rightful place at the summit of the capital’s cultural scene. Of course, those producing plays in 2021 are not the same people who hoofed and sang their way through the Blitz as the bombs fell in their hundreds, but that glorious thread of the-show-must-go-on resilience was defiantly on display from masked-up punters and staff as we NHS-apped our way into the Duchess Theatre for a play set in the midst of another devastating pandemic, four decades past.
Are you old enough to remember Jackanory, the teatime children’s TV series where top talent like Bernard Cribbins and Kenneth Williams told stories and DID ALL THE VOICES? Well, in Cruise, the uber-talented Jack Holden doesn’t just do all the voices, he sings all the songs, dances all the dances and cracks all the jokes in this self-penned one man show which takes us on a white knuckle ride through the Soho of the 1980s as HIV and AIDS begin to exact their terrible toll on the gay scene.
Did I say one man show? That’s not quite true: Cruise would not be the masterpiece it undoubtedly is without John Elliot’s musical direction. Elliot’s original compositions are intrinsic to the action, a soundtrack not only evocative of the era but a pitch-perfect reflection of the emotional rollercoaster ride of the piece: joy, despair and everything in between.
Here’s the set up: Tom, a young, green, and trashed-from-the-night-before Switchboard volunteer, finds himself alone in the listening service’s phone room. He takes a call from Michael who tells the story of what was supposed to be his last night on Earth, 29th February 1988. He and his partner had been diagnosed HIV positive on 29th February 1984 and given four years to live so his time, according to the prognosis, was up.
Camp old queens.
You don’t need to have been around in the 80s to recognise the characters we meet along the way: eccentric old women draped in manky fur, hedonistic party boys, camp old queens with vicious tongues and kindly hearts, straight men wanking off in the public bogs…all queer life is here, and all brought to vivid, technicolor life by Holden’s on point characterisations.
In this age of “OK boomer”, where the experiences of the older generation are often maligned, it was good to see, after hearing Michael’s story, Tom’s new found respect for the fellow Switchboard volunteer who he’d previously dismissed as a bit of a weirdo. But, ultimately, this is a tale of resilience: despite the suffering, the deaths and the heartache, Michael, like London theatre, is still here.
Cruise is on at the Duchess Theatre. For tickets visit www.CruiseThePlay.co.uk.
Check out our review of It’s a Sin here.