Jack Holden talks about bringing his 80s queer play, Cruise, to life


Jack Holden (left) and Daniel Geddes, who stars in the South African production of Cruise

Ahead of the Cape Town opening of the acclaimed English queer play, Cruise, its creator, actor and playwright Jack Holden, reveals what inspired him to bring this portrait of 80s gay life in London to the stage.

Written and originally performed by Holden, the local production of Cruise – which had a run in Johannesburg last year – is the first international staging of the play outside of the UK.

When diagnosed with HIV in 1984, Michael is told he will have four years left to live. So, with the clock ticking, he and his partner Dave decide to sell their house, flog the car and spend everything and party like it is the last days of the world.

This Olivier Award-nominated one-man play, starring Daniel Geddes in South Africa, is an emotional rollercoaster at times and at others, a hilarious ode to gay culture in the 80s and how AIDS changed the community forever.

Holden opened up about his debut play from his home in the UK.

How tough was Cruise to research and to write?

It was based on a phone call I heard while I was volunteering for Switchboard, an LGB+ helpline here in the UK. The story struck me as so moving and powerful and life-affirming that I knew I needed to tell it someday, somehow and it was only in the pandemic when I was locked down at home with nothing else to do, I finally got on and did it.

So, in that sense, it saved me because it really gave me a focus during the first lockdown here. A lot of the research about Soho was quite easy to do online, but the stuff that gave the show the texture that I think makes it sing, are the interviews I did with some older gay friends that I’m lucky to have, and I asked them about their time in Soho in the 1980s. They gave so much texture to the piece.

How soon after that Switchboard call did you know this was going to become a play with you starring?

I took that phone call in 2013 and then I started writing the show in 2020, so it took me seven years sitting on the idea. Maybe it has something to do with the context of sitting with another epidemic, Covid-19, that made me reflect upon the sort of fear and terror that the gay community must have gone through in this country especially with the 1980’s HIV and AIDS.

Talk to us about this being your first play…

It’s the first time that any of my writing made it to stage. I got pretty close to having a play on in 2019 and then the pandemic swept that all away, so that was quite a disappointment. But in many ways, it all worked out because Cruise was ready to go, and it was an urgent, fresh idea. When everything aligns, you just have to go with it. And I suppose, it kind of makes sense as a debut play. Because it’s kind of a rhythmic monologue, it’s not a series of scenes, it’s more like talking to myself as different characters.

Why did you feel the story should be told?

I think primarily I was trying to create something that would entertain people and I don’t think entertainment has to be light all the time. In fact, I think entertainment is better if there’s a bit of darkness, a bit of sadness mixed in there, a bit of humanity that lifts the lightness and makes it more delicious really. I obviously wanted the piece to feel authentic. And that was the scariest thing, I guess.

I didn’t really think about it too much until I got to performances, and then I thought this could be high risk, I could have judged this wrong. But my research was thorough, and I talked to the right people, and I had good people surrounding me who I trusted to tell me if something wasn’t ringing true. I also wanted to dive into the music of the era. Because I love 80s music. It can be really, really good and it can also be really, really bad and I wanted to play with that. There’s been a real moment of 80s nostalgia, so I thought it would land really well.

What was the impact of the pandemic on the play?

When audiences came to see the show, we were the first play to open in the West End [after lockdown] and the first NEW play. I think people were so hungry for the live experience and Cruise is loud and brash and all of those things and I think it’s such an ultra-high octane live experience, people were so receptive to it, so emotional behind their medical masks that it landed well. We also made it loud, because we knew people were coming out of isolation. So we emphasised all of that and made it so that you would want to dance. We were just expressing how we felt and the audience seemed to feel the same.

The story is about taking nothing for granted. So aside from it being a queer play, it struck that chord, we must never take anything for granted and in a way, it does feel as if those lessons have been forgotten with the pandemic.

And the music! Was that an easy ask as a backdrop to the 80s?

I wanted the music to be in the DNA of the play and that‘s why I worked so closely with John Patrick Elliott [who wrote the music]. I brought a few pages of text to our first workshop, and he brought samples of 80s music. And we started mixing it together. That means the show has musicality in its veins and that’s how I want my show. I love traditional shows and when it works it absolutely blows me away, but there’s no shame in putting on a show and entertaining people.

The performance is demanding but what a gift to an actor. Was it tough to let it go?

It’s a strange thing because I did tailor it so closely to what I can do and doing the first run after not doing anything for quite a while, did hit me like a 10-ton truck! And then I was much better prepared for the second West End run because I knew what was coming and it really is a marathon for a performer. But I am so thrilled to hand over to someone else in South Africa and I hope to do so in other places.

Were you surprised that South Africa was the first contender for staging Cruise outside of the UK?

I suppose I was surprised that South Africa was the first outside of the UK, but I was also cheered by it and love it. Obviously South Africa’s history with HIV and AIDS is well known, so on that front it struck me as completely logical. I didn’t really dare think that it would be done outside of the UK, and I did wonder how idiosyncratically British and London it is. Would it make it inaccessible to audiences in other parts of the world? I’m eager with anticipation to see how Cape Town audiences receive the piece. All I can say is, ENJOY.


Cruise – directed by Josh Lindberg – runs at The Avalon Auditorium in The Homecoming Centre, Cape Town from Wednesday 12 to Sunday 30 April 2023. Tickets are R195 and bookings are via Quicket.

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