Cruise is one of only a handful of West End openings this August, so thank goodness it’s a hit. A lucky few were already privy to how good Cruise is, with the show making headlines in May 2021 when it opened as the first post-pandemic West End production.
“I knew that a solo show would be eminently fundable because the overheads are very low,” Holden told me when the show opened. He was right, but this second run, upgraded from the 494-seater Duchess Theatre to the 775-seater Apollo, proves this one-man show is worth funding not just in a crisis, but in ordinary times when this theatre could be hosting much bigger productions with traditionally-sized casts and crew.
Cruise is breathtakingly beautiful, set to the often toe-tapping, occasionally toe-curling beats of John Patrick Elliott’s electronic soundtrack
So how has Cruise managed to climb above so many others to land a second run, and in the theatre that hosted Jez Butterworth’s seminal Jerusalem? Above all else, Cruise is breathtakingly beautiful, set to the often toe-tapping, occasionally toe-curling beats of John Patrick Elliott’s electronic soundtrack, which, performed live on set, morphs with the storytelling of the show.
Nik Corrall’s beguiling set is equally as transportive. We see an interpretation of 1980s Soho: an anonymous labyrinth of pubs and clubs where, as Holden’s main character Michael puts it, queer people “turn heartbreak and anxiety into physical liberation – that’s the power of dance.”
Like It’s A Sin writer Russell T Davies, Holden’s genius is in creating a loveable and entirely tangible bunch of queer male characters for whom your heart bleeds
There are obvious parallels drawn with hit Channel 4 show It’s A Sin; a poster above the front doors proudly references it. Both are set amid the AIDS crisis and feature leading men who were born at the tail end of that era, and perhaps because of this, both shows are part of a new raft of creative output which affords more creativity in depicting the atrocities, certainly when compared to AIDS stalwart plays like reportage-heavy The Normal Heart.
Like It’s A Sin writer Russell T Davies, Holden’s genius is in creating a loveable and entirely tangible bunch of queer male characters for whom your heart bleeds, but who are joyous as well as tragic. They are realised abstractly, with Holden acting their parts but never wearing any make-up, and always remaining in casual modern day jeans and t-shirt.
In part, it’s based on a true story. Holden volunteered for the LGBT Switchboard charity a decade ago in his early twenties and on one particularly brutal hangover, picked up a call from Michael, whose partner died of AIDS. Cruise snaps in and out of the present, with Holden slipping back and forth from himself, to playing Michael, and some of the “queens” from Michael’s day.
There is Fat Sandy, a rotund New Yorker who jokes about lending the skinnier, much younger Michael a slab of his fat midriff, and Gordon Polari, a nostalgic reference to Polari, the queer coded language which was pervasive in the middle of last century in Britain. Then there’s DJ Fingers, who introduces London to the first synthesised dance music at Heaven nightclub.
It’s a blistering ode to queerness, Old Compton Street, joy, resilience and escapism
The writing stings with stories from the front line of queer mental health. We experience one man going cruising for “a reliable wank with a tinge of despair,” one of a generation of queers who were “acceptable by law but still Britain’s dirty secret.” “What are you after?” another asks. “Someone to save me,” replies the other, the beat of the night rumbling in the background.
Holden does his writing justice across this intensely passionate, exhaustingly physical 90-minute performance, never leaving stage once. On stage alone, he captures a handful of different men with brilliant vocal intonations, jolting across the stage being youthful, and conversely, pulling off catty but sensitive impressions of hammy older queers from the day. He also sings incredibly beautifully – go for the singing alone – as he plays multiple characters in as many minutes.
It’s a blistering ode to queerness, Old Compton Street, joy, resilience and escapism. I wonder whether his performances could have spent more time with the characters at their most frail, to paint a more shocking picture of the physical and mental realities of AIDS, but Holden has chosen not to wade too deeply into sadness.
Instead Cruise is often a celebration, and more than that, a serious reportage of these men’s existence: a reminder that we each have a responsibility to pass the baton from our elders to a new generation that, through work like this, are beginning to understand perhaps just one iota of how impossible life was for this generation of LGBTQ people.
Cruise plays at the Apollo Theatre until 4 September
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