What would you do if you were told you had four years to live? This is the question faced by Michael Spencer, the main character of Jack Holden’s new play Cruise, when he and his partner are diagnosed with HIV in 1984, writes Alexandra Warren.
Mr Holden, who also stars in the one-man show, said: “Four years was the maximum they thought people could survive with HIV at the time, so he marks that date in his calendar and says, ‘right that’s how long I’ve got then.’”
With the clock ticking, Michael and his partner Dave sell their flat, car and spend everything they have partying like it’s the last days of Rome.
When Dave dies two years later, Michael doubles down on his hedonistic ways, spending what little he has left on drink and drugs.
On the last night of his four-year countdown, Michael decides to go out with a bang.
He heads for Soho, and embarks on a long night of farewells, saying goodbye to friends, enemies, strangers, pubs and clubs.
“Then, by chance, he survives,” said Mr Holden. “And that’s the crucial part of it – because he’s spent all of his money, he’s lost lots of friends, and his flat and yet he’s given life back.
“It’s kind of a bittersweet ending, because he is given the gift of life but he has nothing left in life to make it worth living – and he has to start building again.”
The play is inspired by a true story told to Mr Holden while he was volunteering at the LGBT+ helpline Switchboard, although all the names, dates and details have been changed.
Mr Holden also combined other stories he had heard, and added details he heard from people that were there at the time.
He said: “I was lucky enough to have a couple of older queer people in my life who were around then and experienced that first hand.”
A friend of Mr Holden’s remembered how in the 1980s there were no glass fronts to the bars in Old Compton Street, just closed shop fronts, and that you had to knock on closed doors to go through.
“It was a very different atmosphere, a very clandestine feeling. It’s those kinds of details, those kinds of nuggets that I’ve found so interesting and so atmospheric and hopefully it will lend an air of authenticity to the script.”
As well as an authentic feel, the play promises to bring music, songs and fun.
On stage with Mr Holden is John Elliott of The Little Unsaid, who has curated a soundtrack of classic anthems and original music that charts electronic music throughout the eighties.
The play features a dizzying roll call of characters including a Bristolian barmaid who works at the Coach and Horses, an old Scottish heiress, a New York queen, and a Mancunian DJ – all played by Mr Holden.
He said: “I wanted it to be kaleidoscopic in the way that Soho and the queer community really is. I wanted it to feel vibrant and colourful.”
Fun aside, Cruise also tells an important story. Mr Holden said: “The AIDS crisis was a woeful episode in our national history. I think any story that sheds light on this dark chapter is important.
“But also in terms of the LGBTQ community it’s really important for us to keep out history alive because so many gay men died during this era.
“We don’t have as many people as we should telling this story so it’s up to us to keep it alive.”
The film of Cruise is available until April 25 at Stream.Theatre.
The live world premiere of the production will reopen the Duchess Theatre for four weeks from 18 May- June13.
For tickets and further information, go to www.cruise theplay.co.uk
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