community

Cruise: How a true story inspired a new West End play about the Aids crisis

The play will be one of the first to open on the West End post-lockdown when it debuts at the Duchess Theatre in May.

2021-04-14

Words: Tom Stichbury / Jack Holden

How would you spend your last night on Earth? That question is the starting point of Jack Holden’s new play Cruise, a celebration of queer culture and heart-swelling tribute to the lives lost during the HIV/Aids epidemic.

Set in London’s Soho in the ‘80s, the one-man show – written and performed by Jack (War Horse, Ink) – is centred on Michael Spencer. When Michael is diagnosed with HIV in 1984, he is told he’ll have four years to live – at most. With the clock ticking, he and his partner Dave decide to sell their lot, spend everything and party like there’s no, well, tomorrow.

Dave dies two years later and Michael doubles down on his hedonistic ways, drowning himself in drink and drugs. On the final evening of his four-year countdown – 29 February 1988 – he decides to go out with an almighty bang… then he survives. Michael has been given the gift of life, but what kind of life can he now live?

Based on a true story (or rather, a combination of stories) that Jack heard while he was volunteering for Switchboard, the LGBTQ+ listening service, Cruise – directed by Bronagh Lagan and produced by Katy Lipson and Lambert Jackson – will be one of the first productions to open on the West End post-lockdown at the Duchess Theatre, 18 May-13 June. (A filmed version is also available to view at Stream.Theatre, 15-25 April.)

Credit: Harry Livingstone

In an authored piece penned for Attitude, Jack reflects on the importance of capturing and remembering the past and also why, in the wake of the coronavirus, the play might strike even more of a chord with theatregoers...

____________________

Cruise is not just one true story. It’s a hundred true stories woven together to make a big gay tapestry. I didn’t hear all of these stories on the phone at Switchboard; they are stories told to me by my gay elders, stories repeated to me by my queer brothers and sisters, and, less frequently, stories I’ve read.

I sometimes feel guilty about harvesting all of these stories for the creation of a play. But then I remind myself that queer history is a largely oral history; telling our stories – keeping our stories alive – is vital.

Before the last century, our stories were commonly expunged from the historical record, either because they were regarded as an abomination, or because they were not stories of wars and power and suited men – they were stories of the heart. Our stories are about loving who we want to love and learning to love ourselves.

I turned up for my Switchboard induction on a stormy October night in 2013. I wanted to do some good, I wanted to meet other queer people, and I wanted to make some friends outside of the close-knit theatre community. (Naturally, the first person I met at Switchboard was a producer at the Royal Shakespeare Company). After a comprehensive training programme and many hours observing experienced call-handlers do their thing, they let me loose on the phones.

My first few shifts were horrible – I felt utterly out of my depth and certain that I couldn’t help any of the callers. Me: a 23-year-old middle-class actor. What advice could I possibly give to someone in need? Eventually though, I understood that I was not at Switchboard to solve people’s problems; I was there to listen.

One of the stories I heard was that of a man who contracted HIV early in the ‘80s. A couple of years later, he lost his partner to an Aids-related illness. With little left to live for, and with his time running out, he decided to spend everything he had and party like it was the end of the world.

But then, by chance, he survived. Luck was on his side for an unusual amount of time. Then effective medication came along, and his life expectancy shot up. His life had been handed back to him. But, without his partner, without many of his friends, without any money… what kind of life could he now lead?

That man’s story wasn’t unique. I’ve heard it several times since, with different characters, different timelines, different endings. I’ve wanted to tell this story on stage for a long time, but something about the last year made me put pen to paper and make it happen. That story became Cruise.

At my lowest points this year I’ve wondered if I did something to deserve the Coronavirus pandemic… whether this health crisis was planetary-scale karma for my having such a lot of fun.

The idea is, of course, ridiculous. But where did the idea come from? Why would I be preconditioned to think I deserve the suffering a virus brings? Ah yes. I grew up gay. I was a kid in the '90s. And the undercurrent of Aids-related terror was still there. And the rhetoric of the Conservative government’s response to HIV and Aids was ingrained in the social fabric of our country.

When HIV and Aids jumped across the Atlantic in the early ‘80s, a vaccine wasn’t concocted within a year as it has been – mercifully – to combat the coronavirus. When doctors and nurses and heroic lesbians were staffing the increasingly busy Aids wards, the country didn’t applaud their efforts from their doorsteps as they have done this year. According to the TV adverts and the newspapers, Aids was a horrific illness that only affected the degenerate gay men who engaged in deviant behaviour. Essentially: they deserved it.

In a sense, I wrote Cruise to remind myself that nobody deserves anything. Nobody is at fault for catching a virus. Nobody is deserving of death. Nobody deserves to survive. What happens, happens. We can try to make sense of it. Or we can simply try to look out for each other a little better in the face of such chaos.

In its early days, Switchboard was as much a directory as a helpline. Pre-internet, queer people would call up to find out where was good to go dancing on a Wednesday night in Liverpool.

Now, Switchboard is primarily a safe space for queer people to talk through their worries, fears, concerns, experiences, problems, hopes and dreams. And, frankly, we’ve never been more in need of someone to listen to us without judgment: We’ve been separated from our families. We were legally not allowed to see our friends. The incendiary atmosphere of social media, which gives the biggest exposure to the loudest voice or the hottest take, doesn’t allow for patient, empathetic, non-judgemental listening.

Credit: Harry Livingstone

I’m thrilled that Cruise is going to be one of the first new shows to open in the West End after lockdown. It’s a show packed with live music, song, comedy and character – things we’re all in desperate need of after this horror show of a year. But, as well as a foot-stomping evening of fabulous entertainment, I hope people take away something lasting from Cruise. I hope people understand that the stories I tell each night are not my stories. They are many people’s stories. They are everyone’s stories. I just happened to listen to them.

One of the things I’ve missed most about theatre is being able to watch and listen for a couple of hours, uninterrupted. It can’t be paused, it can’t be fast-forwarded, and you can’t discuss it as it unfolds. You have to listen.

Once audiences have seen Cruise, have listened to this heartbreaking, uplifting, inspiring story, I hope they listen more. I hope we all listen to each other a bit more.

Cruise will be available to stream online from 15-25 April and will be live at The Duchess Theatre, London from 18 May - 13 June.

Tickets for are available now here.