Photo: Pamela Raith

Cruise was the first play we saw in 2021, as we finally emerged out of lockdown after several months. Having not seen anything on the stage for quite some time, we described it as “a potent reminder of the power of live theatre” before awarding it a perfect score. It was also the first play we’d seen since watching It’s A Sin; Cruise explores similar themes during the same era, and is every inch as powerful as Russell T Davies’ seminal hit TV show. Focusing on London’s gay scene during the 1980s, we found it to be hilarious, heartwarming and poignant in equal measure.

We’re pleased to report that – returning to London’s West End, in a new, bigger home at the Apollo Theatre – this Olivier-nominated play is just as good second time around. For context, it tells the story of a recent-past which sees Jack, a young volunteer at LGBTQ+ charity Switchboard, take a call from an older gay man, Michael. The call recounts the story of Michael’s life leading up to, and following, his HIV diagnosis in 1984 – painting a vivid, living and breathing picture of Soho through the 1980s. It’s all based on a true story, although we’re aware some details have been changed to protect the identity of that caller.

Cruise is written by, and stars, Jack Holden – but it’s very much not a one man show; John Elliott has composed the original music for the play, and looks after sound design, and even performs much of the music live on stage. His is a constant presence which adds an extra depth and texture to many scenes, working as a DJ in a club or a guitarist in a music bar or a sound engineer at a studio. The music is absolutely integral to the play.

What a performance it is from Jack Holden, though – not only is his text utterly superb, but the delivery is flawless. Endlessly energetic, his enigmatic performance had us captivated throughout. It’s a rare and special thing for a play to be this compelling, but Jack had us fully engrossed in the story from the moment he picked up the receiver to the moment Michael dialled off. We felt fully invested in the world that Jack, John and director Bronagh Lagan have created; it’s a genre-defying work, with the music and sound design combining to create this almost-immersive sensory experience as a backdrop for Jack’s effortlessly poetic social commentary.

It just gets so much right. Cruise has clearly been carefully researched, reminiscing about much-loved Soho haunts which no longer exist, or painting vivid images of the types of characters which frequented certain establishments – yet it never feels cliché or like it’s pandering to stereotypes. It’s amazing to see how so many memorable characters and places are created with a change of accent or posture. Jack seemingly has endless energy, and he’s a magnetic presence on stage. Also – did we mention it’s hilarious? This is a show jam-packed with genuinely witty and unpredictable punchlines which had us laughing throughout.

If it wasn’t abundantly clear by now, we absolutely adore Cruise – it’s a play like no other, a truly unique theatrical experience, and all the better for it. While it tackles a difficult subject matter, it emerges as a life-affirming celebration of Soho – an affectionate love letter to queer London. It is to theatre what It’s A Sin is to TV; a towering achievement that would be a great fit for any audience, but particularly for gay men living in London, it’s absolutely essential.

GAY TIMES gives Cruise – 5/5

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