Jack Holden, an already lauded actor has decided that the world of writing deserves some of his singular attention (leave something for the rest of us please?). Having starred on Amazon Prime’s Ten Percent and played the lead in War Horse he just thought he would simply write his own West End debut and star in it. How irritating.
But luminous jealousy aside, this Olivier-nominated piece was the first new play to open on the West End during lockdown. Premiering at the Duchess Theatre, it now returns bigger, better, and brighter to the Apollo. Drag royalty, or at least aristocracy (Victoria Scone, River Medway, and Vinegar Strokes) pack into the crowded grandeur of the theatre, the gay-litterati fan themselves in the heat, waiting, waiting…
Drawing from his experiences working at the LGBT+ switchboard, Holden pulls together a range of tales, memories, and fantasy, then encases them in Nik Corrall‘s steel jungle gym of a set. We meet Jack, a naive gay man of the 21st century with a drive to help but plenty of self-hatred, and not much knowledge of queer history. Recovering from a messy night, he picks up a call at the switchboard; only for his life to change forever.
We are thrown into the world of Michael, and 1980s Soho. Holden’s chameleonic talent shows us the personalities that populate a world different but familiar to the square mile of today. Spherical drag queens, old pantomime dames, DJs, and relics of an even older gay world. We explore this refuge in all its glittering glory and heartrending tragedy.
The writing is poetic, veering into spoken word style monologues and then back into relative realism. Holden’s morphing (if slightly pared back) physicality embodies those met on Michael’s last night on Earth. The play is long for a one-hander, but theatrical magic is deployed by Bronagh Lagan’s directorial style to keep you engaged.
John Patrick Elliot is onstage throughout, high stage left in a sound booth. In a story about the 80s, he has composed a tight musical backdrop, conjuring up the era, then DJing and playing multiple instruments live. Chicago House and Techno blend like strands of memories, the sounds warping in and out.
Equally, Prema Mehta’s lights and limited projection use keep the action pumping and the many-levelled space feeling new. We get a wide scope of locations, from the cavernous Heaven to the tiny smoke-filled Colonnade Club; from public loos to the switchboard, all with a mix of spots and coloured washes.
As a fellow Soho-ite and gay man I hoped this piece would speak to me and to be quite honest, I cried twice. A world of belonging, sexual freedom, and protection from the cold drab 1980s Britain is seamlessly constructed. The eventual arrival of HIV is then utterly devastating. The play was written during our most recent pandemic and now restaged as a potential third disease (again disproportionately affecting the queer world) is looming, making this piece feel laser point focused.
The world lost a generation of gay men, and creative work like this along with TV shows like It’s a Sin bear witness to that massacre. In the 80’s the mainstream media, and (parts) of the theatre industry turned away in revulsion from the cries of the community. The fact that two major West End theatres now support such a show about the AIDS crisis – in the middle of the very place most affected – is uplifting and proof of how far we’ve come. Holden and his outstanding team have crafted a story that finds joy, humanity, and life set in such a time of darkness, and as I dry my tear-stained cheeks I thank them from the very bottom of my heart.
Written by: Jack Holden
Directed by: Bronagh Lagan
Produced by: Aria Entertainment, Playing Field, Peak Productions Ltd
Cruise plays at Apollo Theatre until 4 September. Further information and bookings can be found here.