Jack Holden’s acclaimed play, CRUISE, was the first play to claim a space on a London stage when Covid restrictions lifted. It has now reached Capetonian shores with Daniel Geddes taking on the task of performing a range of complex and colourful characters under the direction of Josh Lindberg at the Homecoming Centre until 30 April 2023. It focusses mainly on what should have been Michael Spencer’s last day on earth, after he lived life to the fullest in response to his HIV positive diagnoses in the mid-80s that only gave him 4 years to live.
CRUISE sets the scene for the play with a telephonic encounter as 60-something Michael tells young Jack of the parties and the people he encountered in ‘80s Soho – tauntingly telling him that the young gays of today do not know what it is to really party. As the conversation unfolds, it reveals the impact of the dreaded AIDS pandemic on Michael and so many of his friends. It balances the perspectives of someone with a lot of life experience with that of someone with almost none, to bring the lessons of the ‘80s into a modern day’s (almost) post-pandemic reality. It tells of the lives ripped apart by the "gay cancer", and reminds us that the void left by the lives cut short still ripple through the universe, an echo, a reminder of how much has been lost to the world.
That being said, I need to make an honest disclaimer: CRUISE moved me, in fact it moved me to tears. However, I'm not sure whether that is because of the greatness of the play or the triggers it exposed for me (triggers I didn't know I still had until I sat still in the darkness of a sacred theatre space). Having lost a childhood friend to that dreaded disease as recently as three years ago, being reminded of the associated stigma that still weighed so heavily on him in his last days, CRUISE definitely packed a punch for me emotionally. My experience of it is viewed through that perspective. I think many people seeing the show, especially friends from the LGBTQIA+ community, may experience the play at a different level than those simply viewing it as a story being told without any personal connection: Once again proving that art truly is subjective; we view it through the lens that is the sum of our experiences.
The energy of the play is heightened and very busy, perhaps even exhaustingly so at times: constantly pivoting between twenty raunchy, sultry and inquisitive characters, while delivering socially relevant commentary, with a bit of cabaret as brief pace interlude to the primarily dance beat driven play.
The set designed by Wilhelm Disbergen strongly resembles the West End production in style. Texturally it creates a stark background of outlines with openly “hidden” corners to present the frame for the shady-glam Soho of the ‘80s where people had to hide their identity and lifestyle preferences behind closed doors. It presents mere outlines of the Soho scene the myriad of characters frequent as Michael sets out on his age of discovery. Along with the lighting design by Jane Gosnell, the set allows for the characters to reveal themselves as they step out from the shadows and the smoke of that decade of decadence and debauchery. The minimalism of the set is given the required detail by the descriptive and dense narrative that provides the details.
The script by Jack Holden pilots the acting with ‘80s Top Gun precision. One kind of forgets that you are watching a Daniel Geddes’ performance, as he disappears with fluidity into the stereotypes, loud beats, harsh lights and smoke that reveals each character. This style serves the narrative well, as it allows one to transpose personal feelings and memories onto characters and into the heart of the play.
The play is a tapestry of personal encounters of those who lived, loved and lost during the Soho gay scene in the ‘80s. The character of Michael is inspired by the true life experience of a call Holden observed when working in a LGB+ helpline call centre in the UK in recent years. This he infused with interviews done with older gay friends about their experience of that time... and so CRUISE was born. It is their stories and the intentionally pulsating music (original compositions by John Patrick Elliott) that form the DNA of this play. That’s what you take with you when you walk out of the theatre: the rhythm flooded with their memories.
Due to the personal link between the playwright and the event that served as catalyst for the writing of the play, it was perhaps a difficult task to decide what to keep and what to cut in crafting the story. Standing at a bit of a distance looking in, I found some elements of the odyssey CRUISE undertakes to be more indulgent than necessary in moving the story forward. But this does not detract from the impact of the play.
CRUISE's theatrical power is found in its relevance. It unpacks a very difficult topic, reminding us that it's essential to talk about the past. It reveals the cost of those many freedoms so easily taken for granted today, but doesn't do so in a way that cloaks the life-affirming celebratory aspects of the play with guilt.
You have until 30 April 2023 to see CRUISE at the Homecoming Centre. Tickets are available through Quicket. The production runs for 90 minutes with no interval. No under 16s.