Last week, the iconic English play Cruise, written by Jack Holden, took to the stage in Cape Town for its second South African run starring Daniel Geddes. After a short stint at The Linden in Joburg last year, the one-man play returns to South African stages to tell the true story of what should have been Michael Spencer’s last night on earth.
“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, spend everything and party like it is the last days of the world.”
An emotional rollercoaster and hilarious ode to gay culture in the 1980s, Cruise shows how HIV/AIDS changed the community forever. Ahead of the show’s opening in Cape Town, British writer Jack Holden gave a run-down of the play.
How tough was CRUISE to research and to write?
It was quite tough to research but it was a pleasure to write. It was a pleasure to research actually. I had the idea of the story for many years. It was based on a phone call I heard while I was volunteering for Switchboard, an LGBT+ helpline here in the UK.
I took that call at Switchboard in 2013. 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, that I finally got on and did it.
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. I asked them about their time in Soho in the 1980s and they gave so much texture to the piece.
For the writing of it, once I got in a room with John Patrick Elliott (who wrote the music), it was very quick because it was always going to be only me on stage, which meant I would be playing all the parts and that provided certain limitations. I wanted it to be an odyssey that bounces around all the bars and clubs and pubs of Soho, so it was quite a classic Hero’s Journey that he had to go on. That was what it was for me. That was the journey and very enjoyable to write.
How soon after that Switchboard call did you know this was going to become a play with you starring? What were your thought processes?
I took that phone call in 2013 and then I started writing the show in 2020, so it took me 7 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 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis.
The thought processes were, “will this be a thing?” “Maybe it’s a short film,” then I thought, “no, be ambitious.” I also thought that when theatres reopen after the pandemic, they are probably not going to put on massive shows, so if I can make it a solo show, that would be great.
I’d performed a few monologues of other people’s writing previously in my career, so I knew I could do it and I wanted to do a show with John Patrick Elliott doing the music again. I had nothing to do in the pandemic, so when a theatre very kindly gave me and John some space to work in, we jumped at the chance to get out of the house and go and do something, create something. It was weird at the time because we were going through empty London to get to the space, wearing masks and having to keep 10 metres apart, it was very surreal. But sometimes it takes surreal circumstances to create something memorable.
Elaborate on the writing as a debut writing experience. Where did the writing come from?
It’s the first time that any of my writing has made it to the stage. There were plenty of attempted plays, half-plays, scenes and finished plays on my hard drive. I got pretty close to having a play on in 2019 but then the pandemic swept that all away, which 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 makes sense as a debut play because it’s a rhythmic monologue, it’s not a series of scenes, it’s more like talking to myself as different characters. Maybe it feels like a first play because it’s a stream of consciousness more than it is a traditional play. It feels like a show that straddles theatre, spoken word, live music obviously and gig theatre. It’s loud and explosive and surprising and heartbreaking and hilarious and there are tons of characters in it and it never lets up. I think it’s everything I wanted to put on a stage, in one big blob.
Why did you feel the story should be told – now?
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 was hoping to entertain people and when I was taking on the subject of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, I obviously wanted the piece to feel authentic. That was the scariest thing but 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, and indeed, in rehearsals we had several changes and bits we cut.
I also wanted to dive into the music of the era. Because I love 1980s 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 1980s nostalgia, so I thought it would land really well.
What was the impact of the pandemic on the play?
The pandemic allowed me to make the play and cleared a West End Theatre, to allow us to have our first West End run, so I have a very strange relationship with the pandemic. At the start of the pandemic, I thought my career was over and at the end of it, my career was better than it had ever been. It was a weird time.
But, in terms of the audience and how it affected how the show landed, when audiences came to see the show, we were the first play to open in the West End and the first new play. I think people were hungry for the live experience, and Cruise is loud and brash and all of those things. I think it’s such an ultrahigh octane live experience and 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. 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. It sounds weird, but I look at the London Underground, which is sometimes so busy, which I used to hate, but now love, because I missed it so much during the pandemic, that I’m so happy it’s back.
And the music, what a stroke of genius! Was that an easy ask as a backdrop to the 1980s?
I wanted the music to be in the DNA of the play and that‘s why I worked so closely with John Patrick Elliott. I brought a few pages of text to our first workshop and he brought samples of 1980s 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.
We have so many tools at our disposal in theatre: sound, light, music, smoke, movement and, especially with a solo show, you don’t have to use all of those, but I really wanted to. I never dared to hope that the show would get as big as it did, but I wanted it to be big and loud. I knew that would have the biggest impact, especially because all of us had spent so much time apart.
The performance? It’s quite an ask 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, hit me like a ten-ton truck! 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. That’s the joy of being the writer as well, because I am quite good at separating the actor and writer even though, in this instance, I did it all. I’m really excited to see other people interpret it and I am under no illusions that only I can do it. I made it fit me so it looks impressive, but I’m sure better actors can make light work of it.
Were you surprised that South Africa was the first contender, even though we have some of the most progressive constitutional LGBT+ protection? Have you seen the local production?
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/AIDS is well known, so, on that front, it struck me as completely logical. I didn’t 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? The text has been translated into other languages and those productions are hopefully coming up. It’s been such a pleasant surprise, all these different things that happened to the play. Doing the recorded version, then the West End, getting an Olivier nomination, and then the West End again and South Africa, it’s always blown my mind.
I loved watching the South African production. It was surreal watching someone else performing Jack (me) performing the show. It was quite a mind-bending show. Really informative to see how the show can be interpreted in different ways and yes, humbling. I’m thrilled that it’s getting another life. I’m so pleased about the Cape Town run, this show (and they) really deserve another go at it.
Did you expect the rave reviews you have received? Both in London and Johannesburg.
No I didn’t expect the reviews for London or Joburg. Throughout my acting career, I’ve been very sensitive to reviews, I think as we all are, to be honest. You put yourself out there and if it doesn’t land in the way you thought it did, it’s really discombobulating. I was very worried. I mainly wanted it to be reviewed modestly. I wasn’t expecting anything huge, just wanted to get out of the review process unscathed.
What really satisfied me about these reviews, the show kept defying their expectations. A little show struck them as incredibly big, because of the themes and because we made it big. I was thrilled that it landed in the same way in Joburg because there was something in me that was worried whether it would translate, or whether we were just lucky in London. To see that the story, itself, carries, is really reassuring.
I’m eager with anticipation to see how Cape Town audiences receive the piece. All I can say is, ENJOY.
This South African production of Cruise is directed by Josh Lindberg with original music by John Patrick Elliott, set design by Wilhelm Disbergen and lighting by Jane Gosnell.
Cruise runs at The Avalon Auditorium in The Homecoming Centre, Cape Town from 12 to 30 April 2023. Tickets and bookings are available via Quicket.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.