This pulsating ode to generational trauma hits the mark across the board. A narrative that could easily become cliched or sanctimonious is instead gently sculpted by Jack Holden, who writes and stars, into a genuine and heartfelt story.
The one-man show tells the true story of Jack, aged twenty-two, manning Switchboard, the LGBT+ helpline. A call comes in from Michael, a veteran of the AIDS epidemic who was diagnosed with HIV in 1984. As Michael recounts his adventures through Soho in the eighties, Holden brings to life the eccentric characters with ease and precision. Each character helps Michael through the strains of the epidemic, as the people and the community that he loves falls apart around him. With this too, Jack understands the legacy of pain upon his community.
While Holden’s writing verges near to cliche at points, it always just stays the right side of the line. Furthermore, as the play develops, the more cringe-worthy lines are pacified by Jack’s reflection that these comments were symptomatic of his character’s own naivety. By the play’s conclusion all of the innocuous but seemingly fruitless meanders of story and characterisation are tied together in a message of love, of loss and of community. While reckless partying forms a central motif, the play carefully contrasts these with emotional, thought provoking monologues that give the audience the space to breathe. Holden also managed to balance the severe themes of the play with comedy throughout. As such, he succeeds where many debut playwrights fail, and the world he creates for the audience feels real.
Holden further shows off his technical ability with his skillful acting. He flicks between characters at the drop of a hat, each one so defined and well characterised that it feels like you’ve known them for years. With such an array of characters and such vivid scenes being played out, having just one actor could have felt barren or tired, but it didn’t. Instead Holden’s energy commanded the attention of the auditorium throughout.
The set design, primarily featuring an industrial frame on a revolve, was striking, and it’s stripped-back nature connoted the clubs and pubs that the characters were frequenting. The graphic lighting design by Jai Morjaria also transported the audience back to the electric gay clubs of the eighties. However while there were moments of strength, the projection design was often surplus, and distracted from the action taking place.
One of the most notable strengths of the show was the sound design. Music forms a central theme to the show, with musician and sound designer John Elliott mounted on a platform, providing live music throughout. This succeeded in creating a sense of urgency and immediacy and provided a perfect backdrop to the tumultuous frenzied nights out the Michael has. As well as this Holden, playing various characters, performs a series of iconic anthems. His voice is both strong and versatile. Songs included ‘I Will Survive’, ‘Always On My Mind’ and a drag queen rendition of ‘Is That All There Is?’ in which their “coarse Northern rasp” gives way to dulcet tones that Peggy Lee herself would be proud of. Clubbing sequences can often feel awkward for an audience, but here there was something tender about Holden’s drugged up Michael pounding the night away at Heaven nightclub as he recounts names of friends who have died as the electric music roars around him.
Overall the play beautifully honours the legacy of the AIDS epidemic and manages to connect with the whole audience, young or old, gay or straight. As the house lights came up at the end, you could see many people wiping tears away from their eyes, most notably men of a certain age, for whom it was clear that the play struck close to home. This tale of love and destruction feels more pertinent today, in a post-covid world, than ever before. As Jack reflects: “against the backdrop of another virus, I realised just how lucky I was to be getting older”.