'Cruise' at the Duchess Theatre review: A funny, sobering, and heart-warming look at the Aids crisis

Jack Holden's one-man show explores the hedonistic life of a gay man living in Soho in the 1980s.


Words: Alastair James; pictures: Pamela Raith

After more than a year with no theatre, I was desperate to get back into one. I’d missed it. I even found, turning up to the Duchess Theatre, that I’d missed the often unappreciated artists who jump the queue to be with acquaintances they’re not actually there to see, with only so much as an insincere apology as they step in front of you.

I also missed the awkward shuffle past fellow patrons to mid-row seats and watching the quintessential British interaction when someone’s in the wrong seats.

Cruise is definitely worth going to see. One-man shows can be hit and miss (depending on the size of the actor’s ego), but this was phenomenal! The play is based on the writer and actor, Jack Holden’s, experience working for the LGBTQ Switchboard helpline in his early twenties. Over 90 minutes, Holden recounts one call from ‘Michael’ about his life in Soho in the 1980s and during the Aids crisis.

In what can only be described as a marathon type feat, Holden, 30, transitions from a younger version of himself to our primary storyteller, Michael, who then introduces us to many other characters, each clearly defined from one another by Holden.

Set to an electric 1980s soundtrack (provided throughout by John Elliot) we journey through bars, recording studios, and clubs, meeting all sorts of people along the way, who are tragically whittled away.

Holden jumps, dances, and sashays across the stage bringing the vibrant, seedy party streets of Soho to life as he tells the story leading up to one night in 1988 and paying tribute to those that were lost thanks in part to the ignorance of others.

As Jack tells us after the call is over: we are lucky to age as so many others didn’t. The play helps pay tribute to those individuals, reminding us of the importance of telling these stories and ensuring we never forget.

It’s also timely, given the current pandemic; a connection made explicit toward the end when it’s commented that if Aids was (then) affecting “straight white men”, people would work faster to find a cure.

For a first play back after more than a year, this was superb. The play, directed by Bronagh Lagan, is funny, sobering, and heart-warming. Holden is charming, charismatic, funny, and devastating. A good actor delivers a strong and impactful performance. A great actor establishes a one-on-one connection with each audience member and makes that person feel as if they are the only person in the room. It’s a relationship that's been sorely-missed.

Rating: 4/5

Cruise is playing at the Duchess Theatre until 13 June. For the best deals on tickets click here.