Jack Holden Answered a Call for Help, Then Wrote Hit Play ‘Cruise’

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When Jack Holden was 22, he volunteered at Switchboard, a much-cherished and valued LGBTQ+ information and support line in London. He had already made his big break, starring in the West End production of warhorsestraight from drama school. Suddenly he was a young gay man right in the heart of London. He wanted to meet people. “I wanted a community,” Holden said. “In a way it was quite selfish, but I also wanted to help.”

Ten years later, Holden is back in the West End playing an acclaimed solo piece inspired by one of the phone calls he received on Switchboard. cruisingwhich ran at the Apollo Theater through September 4 for an encore, was the first West End production to open after Covid restrictions there were lifted last spring.

“It was the biggest kick I’ve ever felt in my life,” Holden told The Daily Beast of that first return to the podium. The play’s exciting tour of 1980s Soho, a free-spirited haven where a plague reigned, resonated with audiences emerging from pandemic isolation. It also earned Holden an Olivier nomination for Best Play.

Founded in 1974, the then Gay Switchboard (then London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard) was a leading source of information on HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and still handles up to 20,000 calls a year. (Full disclosure: Tim Teeman, the editor of this piece, volunteered there from 2006 to 2010.)

Pre-internet, you can call Switchboard for gay pub listings, for crisis support, or a friendly ear. Volunteers receive rigorous training on how to handle a variety of situations on the leash, Holden said. The one phone call that stayed with him long after that, and eventually formed the final chapter of his career, lasted a whopping 15 minutes.

“It was the anniversary of his partner’s death,” Holden said of the caller. “He was alone and wanted to reminisce. Everyone he knew already knew his story, so it was like he wanted to tell someone new,” recalls Holden. Any details that can identify the caller are withheld in the show, which is a collage. is from memories Holden collected from that time.

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On stage, Holden plays himself at age 22, working on the phones, as well as the caller (named Michael in the play) and some 30 other characters. Michael calls in and tells a magnetic story – about meeting his partner, a meaty hunk with a heart for karaoke, and quickly falling in love amid Soho’s hedonistic flow of electro beats and flashing lights. The record comes on schedule: Both lovers have been diagnosed with HIV and are told they have at most four years to live and probably less.

“Instead of wallowing in the misery of that, they decided to go out with a bang and make the most of what little time they thought they had left. His partner died a year or so later, and then he decided, ‘I’m going to party even harder,’ remembers Holden.

The caller’s story stuck with Holden because it was different from the stories he’d heard about the AIDS crisis, though he admits he wasn’t exposed to many before volunteering at Switchboard. The first he heard about HIV/AIDS was just two years ago, when a spokesperson for the Terrence Higgins Trust came to speak at his drama school, having already been sexually active and inherited a sense that being gay was dangerous, but without any reasoning.

“In my mind, perhaps naively, I thought at the time that people got HIV and died. Or they dodged it and got lucky. But actually there were plenty of guys who got it and just happened to survive,” Holden said. “It struck me very bittersweet that you could have the gift of life again, but without anything to make it worthwhile.”

cruising deals with the legacy of community history, a theme that is as apparent in the story as it is in the way it is told. By embodying multiple characters in a single whirlwind performance, led by Bronaugh Lagan, Holden shows how legacies are passed down from generation to generation. “If you think about our identity, we’re all bits we picked up along the way,” Holden said, noting that the people we meet influence who we become.

That sense of interconnectedness is also reflected in the production’s propulsive original music, composed and performed by John Patrick Elliott, who worked closely with Holden from the start of the piece. “So much of the 80s music was about sampling and borrowing riffs and putting them on top of a very simple electronic beat. We all borrow everything, and we steal and we plagiarize and we copy,” Holden said. Music in cruising also reflects time and place, with Gloria Gaynor’s disco beats evoking the Kings Arms, and the first rumble of Chicago house lighting up legendary club Heaven.

cruising marks Holden’s debut as a playwright and has been a notable success, with a film adaptation already in development. But Holden wasn’t sure at first if it was his story to tell, or one that hadn’t been heard enough. It’s a sinRussell T. Davies’ TBEN series about young Londoners plunging headlong into the AIDS crisis had just aired in the UK before the first West End series of cruising. “I felt a little embarrassed about it, like this really serves our community or just retells the story of our times?” remembered Holden.

“Then I thought, that’s such an internalized homophobia-esque mentality of scarcity. There are a hundred detective dramas every night about fictional people being murdered, and this was a big part of our history,” Holden said. “This story is long. not adequately covered.” And while dramas about the AIDS crisis like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Matthew López’s The inheritance Coming from American playwrights, with their epicenter in New York, Holden recognized a lack of voices in British theater and depictions of how the crisis unfolded there.

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But the people whose stories are still missing from the stage are nothing like Holden (or Kushner or López), namely black and brown people, transgender people, sex workers and more who were hit hard by HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, and today are still disproportionately affected. “The gender identity or race of many of the characters is open to interpretation,” Holden said of cruising. “But I also can’t deny that I’m a white who plays them. It is a step on the way and hopefully will pave the way for more British perspectives from more marginalized voices.”

Concluding the return undertaking of cruising, Holden believes he has managed to do justice to the caller who inspired the piece, and to the many others he has come to represent. “I feel so much love and respect for the people of that generation and for what they’ve been through,” Holden said. “By the time we’re done with this run, I feel like I’ve done my duty to the community and our gay elders, which feels right.”