The struggles of the LGBTQ+ community is something that’s often explored in theatre, and Max Vernon’s The View UpStairs, which makes it’s European Premiere at Soho Theatre, takes a real life tragedy, and presents it as a beautiful and affecting musical.
Up and coming fashion designer (and instagram ‘celebrity’) Wes buys a fire damaged building in New Orleans to house his new brand, his drug fuelled celebrations see him transported back to 1973, and into the heart of the building’s former life. Surrounded by the ghosts of the past, Wes discovers the UpStairs Lounge, primarily a gay bar, but more importantly a sanctuary and a home for marginalised communities.
It might not seem to make a lot of sense, buy why should it have to? In this musical it’s the message that takes precedence over narrative. The real UpStairs lounge was indeed a safe haven, until it was destroyed by a fire bomb, the worst attack on the American LGBTQ+ community until the Pulse nightclub shootings. The difference between these two atrocities was the public reaction, in 1973 it was ignored and forgotten, with many of the dead left unidentified by ashamed relatives.
It is the contrast between today, and nearly half a century ago, which The View UpStairs captures so vividly. Through the eyes of Wes, a twenty eight year old who has been able to lead his life as a gay man virtually unimpeded, we can see just how horrifically the LGBT community was discriminated against. In a scene where the police visit the lounge, Wes’s confusion and outrage is felt by us all, as we struggle to comprehend how different the era really was.
To effectively present these contrasts alongside a compelling storyline, and to do so in just two hours, means that Vernon has had to keep the characters simple and recognisable, and there’s a risk that some audience members may mistake this for stereotyping, instead of the creation of a contemporary parable that it is. No matter how cliché the characters may or may not be, they find themselves in the hands of an exceptionally talented cast.
If you expect Tyrone Huntley to be marvellous, then you’ll be proved correct. He wonderfully captures that millennial arrogance that hides vulnerability, while at the same time giving Wes the confidence to be a believable call to arms. Those gorgeous vocals that he makes seem so effortless are the final ingredient in his outstanding performance.
There are strong performances too from John Partridge as Buddy, the closeted piano player, and Carly Mercedes Dyer as the landlady determined to protect her flock. Cedric Neal is sultry and sassy as Willie, while Declan Bennett handles the tricky role of loner Dale with a painfully astute nuance. Bennett’s role could have benefitted from being expanded slightly to further explore his affection for Freddy, played in a show stopping performance by Garry Lee.
The most striking performance of the night belongs to Andy Mientus in a stunning London debut. His Patrick is sweet and charming, and as the character’s troubled past is slowly revealed it is impossible not to feel connected to the character in some way. His solo performance of ‘Waltz (Endless Night)’ is a breathtaking mix of angst and yearning, and a masterclass in performance. So, along with Wes, we fall in love with Mientus’ Patrick, and profoundly feel his loss when the inevitable tragedy strikes.
The devastating fire is handled with great care, and extravagant staging is forfeited for a gut wrenching monologue in another stand out moment for Mientus. Director Jonathan O’Boyle has created a production which very lovingly finds a middle point between Vernon’s book and score, the second of which provides a surprising twist with each new number performed, and captures the spirit of 1970’s disco and glam rock perfectly.
The View UpStairs is a more cleverly constructed piece of theatre than people may initially give it credit for. Max Vernon, between the eclectic score and characters pre-cut from a pattern, has written a hugely important and multifaceted examination of queer communities past and present, resulting in a triumph of modern musical theatre, with a history lesson we all need to pay attention to.