Soho Theatre, London – until 24 August 2019
Whilst victories in the LGBTQ+ community are rising, and social attitudes and actions are, for the most part, much more positive, there’s still much to fight for, as Max Vernon’s musical highlights.
In its European premiere at the Soho Theatre, The View Upstairs cleverly creates a conversation between the past and present by visiting the UpStairs Lounge, a New Orleans gay bar which was the subject of an arson attack in 1973 which killed 32 people. The tragic story is one which has often been wiped out from history and was even minimised by news outlets at the time, so it’s an honour to see it brought to life so thoughtfully.
The story follows Wes, the 2019 “influencer” and fashion designer who is buying the dilapidated bar in the modern day. His estate agent leaves, and in a somewhat mystical, drug-filled flurry of curtains, he is transported back to the bar as it was on the day of the fire. Who we are then introduced to are the various people, decked out in bell bottoms, who find solace and friendship in the safe space the UpStairs provides. Wes’ eyes are gradually opened to he struggles of being gay in the 70s and he questions how he leads his life in the modern day.
Wes is a smartphone-addicted go-getter who often veers into a caricature of a Gen Y person, but is still intensely entertaining and relatable. As a whole the book features a lot of stereotypes which are not always believable enough, but there are hilarious one-liners throughout, as well as many thought-provoking moments.
What the script lacks is made up for in spades by the utterly phenomenal cast. Tyrone Huntley is effervescent in his performance and provides vocals which need to be heard; Huntley also manages to create a fantastic balance between impudence and vulnerability, which really makes the audience root for him.
The chemistry between the entire cast is second to none, with Wes and Patrick (Andy Mientus) providing especially well thought out interactions. Mientus draws the eye thanks to his incredibly subtle but highly calculated movements which make him seem as though he isn’t acting at all.
The uniformly thrilling cast bring vocals that will cause involuntary whoops and goosebumps in equal measure. Among a team of stars, Carly Mercedes Dyer and Cedric Neal stand out because of their powerhouse voices which ring out with sincerity as well as power. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt is magnetic as the caring, religious mother Inez; whilst Garry Lee provides vocals and sass and her drag queen son Freddy. John Partridge and Declan Bennett are well rounded and striking in their performances and Joseph Prouse and Derek Hagen give memorable, if brief performances. This is a fantastic ensemble piece which has momentum and catchy tunes, but more importantly, heart.
Fabian Aloise and Ruthie Stevens’s choreography is slick and feels part of the characters own movements. Lee Newby’s set is basic but evocative as is Nic Farman’s lighting which expertly matches the moods of the show, although at times felt just a bit too dark.
Jonathan O’Boyle has directed a moving production which feels like an homage to those fighting for gay rights in the past, those fighting now and those who are yet to realise they need to fight.
photo credit: Darren Bell