“Holden epitomises the hope that is so necessary at the moment, without diminishing the tragedy”
“You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative” as the classic song goes; “Don’t mess with Mister In Between”. Well, there’s no messing with Mister In Between in Jack Holden’s solo show, “Cruise”. It embraces hope and optimism with a hug that would have the Covid police reaching for their truncheons. But that’s the point. This show defies the constraints of this past year and celebrates the thrilling side effects of upheaval.
During the early months of lockdown, Holden used the opportunity to write down his reminiscences of his time as a switchboard operator at the LGBTQ+ listening service. Whether it was his initial intention, the result is a powerful, fast-paced, riveting, mesmerising monologue that is kicking the West End back into life. Hot on the heels of Russell T Davies’ “It’s A Sin” TV series, the timing is flawless, but it surpasses comparison. Holden’s research mixes humour and reverence, fact and imagination to give us the exact flavour of the lost Soho of the 1980s.
Jack is a young, twenty-two-year-old volunteer in the present-day call centre. And not particularly good at his job. He has the knack of saying the wrong things, but then again, he receives a lot of crank calls. One day, left on his own in the office, he picks up the phone and meets Michael; a ‘gay veteran’. Michael was Jack’s age in the eighties when he received the then death sentence of being diagnosed as HIV-positive. We are whisked back to that time as Holden adopts not just the character of Michael, but the many, many vibrant and vivid individuals that shared his journey. We meet drag queens, karaoke stars, life-saving and life-affirming barmaids; the delightfully camp Polari Gordon, Slutty Dave among a host of others. We care for each and every one of them, sharing their highs and lows as Holden creates them out of thin air. His performance is as fearless as his writing. Moments of loss are juxtaposed with flights of fantasy and humour; grief and tragedy rub shoulders with laughter and resolve.
But what makes this truly special is the combination of each and every component of the show coming together with breath-taking coordination. The orchestration of sound, light, movement, prose, verse, music and expression is symphonic in its virtuosity. Nik Corrall’s scaffolding set, Jai Morjaria’s stunning lighting and John Elliott and Max Pappenheim’s soundscape come together with a choreographer’s precision as Holden struts his hour upon the stage, stepping in and out of the various characters. It is far from a one man show – John Elliott’s score is a crucial presence throughout; pulsing with its hypnotic rhythms, electronic whispers and crashing waves that brings the eighties into sharp focus.
The closing lines are reminiscent of F Scott Fitzgerald’s “… so we beat on, boats against the current…” The echoes go beyond mere pastiche as the sentiments resonate with a timeless vitality. Holden epitomises the hope that is so necessary at the moment, without diminishing the tragedy. We all recognise the complex issues of survivor’s guilt, but Holden, through the character of ‘gay veteran’ Michael, coaxes it into submission and shapes it into a beautiful celebration. We are still here. Theatre is still here. And plays like “Cruise” will undoubtedly enforce that fact.
“a thoughtful presentation, enhanced by the intimacy of the space, and the skilled performances”
Can The Tempest—a play full of echoes of Shakespeare’s imminent retirement from a rich and successful theatrical life—be played in a small theatre, and on a pocket handkerchief sized stage? It turns out that it can. It can, that is, if you have Michael Pennington for your Prospero, supported by a cast of talented actors speaking with understanding of a text that contains some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines. And it should, if you have a director (Tom Littler) who knows how to put on big plays in small spaces.
You might be forgiven for being sceptical. This Tempest demands work from the audience, beginning with a search to find the venue among all the clothing establishments in Jermyn Street, long the haunt of London’s haute monde. But when you eventually discover the modest entrance, near Waterstones, and descend into the performance space, you will be charmed. The stage is literally tucked into a corner, and designers Neil Irish and Anett Black make the most of it by creating a wall of curving shelves that contain all the flotsam and jetsam of Prospero’s past life as Duke of Milan. Add to that a couple of curtains to create additional spaces, and you can conjure up an enchanted isle quite effectively. Black and Irish were inspired by the experiences and art of Gauguin in Tahiti in the design—hence a lovely sketch of distant vistas on one of the curtains, and a medley of different cultural influences in the costume designs as well. Ariel’s costume and make up stands out in this respect. The costumes are all cleverly made from bits of cloth that could have been washed up from the shipwreck that brought Prospero and his daughter Miranda to the island. Add to that William Reynolds’ lighting design, haunting music and sound by Max Pappenheim (always essential in The Tempest), and you see an unexpectedly rich canvas on which the production has been created. But this is not easily apparent. You have to take the time—to look, and to listen—to all the island’s voices.
Watch for several innovations. The opening scene of the storm at sea that brings Prospero’s enemies to his shore is cut—instead it is Prospero who speaks the lines while holding a ship tossing and turning in his hands. It’s an effective way of emphasizing the fact that Prospero is a magician who has conjured up the storm. When Miranda enters, the audience is as ready as she is, to hear the story of how father and daughter arrived on the island. There is some judicious doubling. Tam Williams plays both Caliban and Ferdinand—and it works because Williams plays Caliban with a white canvas hood over his head. This device makes Caliban an oddly sympathetic character right from the start, and Williams’ skilled performance means that it takes a while to realize that one actor is playing both roles. Peter Bramhill doubles as Sebastian, Ferdinand’s uncle, with the comic role of Trinculo. Richard Derrington doubles as Prospero’s usurping brother, Antonio, with the drunken butler Stephano. It is a treat to see Lynn Farleigh take on the role of Gonzalo, and she brings a rare clarity and power to his lines.
Whitney Kehinde, as Ariel, is a wonderful sprite with just the right amount of enthusiasm for her work, coupled with fear that Prospero will not honour his promise and release her when her tasks are done. Kehinde is a genuine triple threat and a talent to watch. In fact, the only major weakness in this production is the lack of chemistry between Ferdinand and Miranda, despite the best efforts of Tam Williams (without a hood) and Kirsty Bushell (Miranda). And it is the greatest pleasure to watch Michael Pennington, as Prospero, literally hold the whole production in the palm of his hand. He manages to bring off both the power and vulnerability of the role in ways that allow us to maintain sympathy for the character, while questioning Prospero’s more morally dubious actions.
For clarity of insight into Shakespeare’s last great play, take a chance on the Jermyn Street Theatre’s production. It’s a thoughtful presentation, enhanced by the intimacy of the space, and the skilled performances.