Theatre Interview: Jack Holden – Controlling Cruise, Or Making A Call On The Future

April 11, 2023

Jack Holden‘s hit play Cruise runs in Cape Town at The Homecoming Centre (formerly The Fugard Theatre) from 12-30 April.

Cruise is the true story of what should have been Michael Spencer’s (Daniel Geddes) 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 and spend everything and party like it is the last days of the world. This one-man play is an emotional rollercoaster at times and at others, an hilarious ode to gay culture in the 80’s and how AIDS changed the community forever. Its staging in South Africa is very appropriate, as 2022 marked the 40th anniversary of the arrival of the HIV /AIDS pandemic on the African continent.

This South African production is directed by Josh Lindberg, with original music by John Patrick Elliott, set design by Wilhelm Disbergen and lighting by Jane Gosnell.

Jack Holden discusses the play.


How tough was Cruise to research and to write?

It was quite tough to research but it was a pleasure to write. 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 LGB+ 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 and 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 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 actually very quick, because it was always going to be only me on stage, which meant I would be playing all the parts, which 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 it was 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 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 in the 1980s with HIV and AIDS. 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 doing the music again. I had nothing to do in the pandemic, so when a theatre 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 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 made it to stage. There were plenty of attempted plays, half-plays, scenes and finished plays on my hard drive and I got close to having a play on in 2019 – and then the pandemic swept that all away, so that was 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 kind of 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 kind of straddles theatre, spoken word, live music obviously, and theatre. It’s loud and explosive and surprising and heart-breaking and hilarious and there are just tons of characters in it and never lets up. So I think it’s everything I wanted to put on stage in one big blob.


Why did you feel the story should be told – now?

Primarily, I was trying to  create something that would entertain people. 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 and 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 and AIDS in the 1980s, I obviously wanted the piece to feel authentic. And that was the scariest thing. I didn’t 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. Indeed, in rehearsals, we had several changes and bits we cut. I also wanted to dive into the music of the era. I love Eighties music. It can be really good and it can also be really bad and I wanted to play with that. There’s been a real moment of Eighties nostalgia, so I thought it would land 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 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, so 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 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, so people were receptive to it, and so emotional behind their medical masks that it landed well. We also made it loud, because we knew people were coming out of isolation. We emphasised all of that and made it so that you would want to dance. We were 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. It sounds weird, but I look at the London underground, which is sometimes so busy, which I used to hate, but which I now love because I just missed it so much during the pandemic. I’m just so happy that it’s back.


And the music, what a stroke of genius! Was that an easy ask as a backdrop to the Eighties?

I wanted the music to be in the DNA of the play and that‘s why I worked so closely with John. I brought a few pages of text to our first workshop and he brought samples of Eighties 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 and 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 tailored it so closely to what I can do and doing the first run, after not doing anything for quite a while, it hit me like a ten-ton truck! I was much better prepared for the second West End run because I knew what was coming. It really is a marathon for a performer. 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 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 for staging it outside of the UK, 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 I 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 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 now South Africa – it’s always blown my mind! I loved watching the South African production. It was surreal watching someone else being Jack – me – performing the show. It was a mind-bending show. It’s really informative to see how the show can be interpreted in different ways and yes, it’s humbling. I’m thrilled that it’s getting another life. I’m so pleased about the Cape Town run – 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 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 would, it’s really discombobulating. I was worried. I mainly wanted it to be reviewed modestly. I wasn’t expecting anything huge. I just wanted to get out of the review process unscathed. What really satisfied me about these reviews is that the show kept defying 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 reassuring. I’m eager to see how Cape Town audiences receive the piece. All I can say is, enjoy!