Thursday 1st August 2019 at Soho Theatre, London.
Rarely do shows make me want to re-live the first five minutes just as soon as they’ve passed by. From the rousing, buoyant opening number to the moving tear-jerker closing moments, The View Upstairs proves itself to be an exceptional contemporary work which is as fun-loving as it is devastating.
The show debuted off-Broadway in 2017 and is inspired by heartbreaking history – in 1973, the Upstairs Lounge and its patrons were the victims of a horrendous arson attack which left 32 dead. When atrocities happen, they often inspire creative outlets but rarely does that coverage fare as well as this.
Max Vernon’s writing is a sensitive, skilfully woven tribute to those who died and those who came both before and after the event to fight their way to recognition and dignity in the outside world. It’s also a piece which takes time to recognise the current pressures on the LGBTQ+ community, not diminishing either struggle but illuminating both by comparison. Through great humour, great heart and great music, Vernon shines a light on a time growing increasingly invisible in a modern culture of optimistically loud, proud ‘otherness’ and confident acts of protest and empowerment.
A young sequin-clad whippersnapper buys a run-down club and hopes to make a name for himself by renovating it. As he surveys the run-down remnants he now owns, he finds himself on a trippy throwback to the past – 1973 to be precise, back when this club was a haven for the hounded LGBTQ+ community, made up of real characters and a whole lot of entertainment, love and drama. To make a hell of this haven we enjoy and celebrate for just over an hour provides the piercing power of the production in its closing moments – it’s a skilfully constructed piece of theatre.
Production values are great, with Lee Newby’s set and costume designs and Nic Farman’s lighting striking all the right notes for the collisions of past and present. Choreographer Fabian Aloise has the production buzzing with energy and Musical Director Bob Broad brings us all of the sounds perfectly attuned to the unfolding narratives. Jonathan O’Boyle’s direction is dynamic and engaging, delivering the best from both the cast and the story they tell with few lulls. The music of The View Upstairs is fantastic with minimal exceptions and utilises song in the way all the best musicals do: propelling and punctuating the story with purpose.
The cast? Holy Streisand, this is a talented ensemble! From comic timing to the gorgeous vocals filling our ears across the performance, this cast bring larger than life characters to the table in the most relatable, entertaining and crushing ways. The brilliant Tyrone Huntley is this epitome of the modern day ‘influencer’ as our lead, Wes. Head filled with branding, followers, money-making and seeking approval, he’s both a punchline and a vehicle for a much needed education. But the comically charming and self-centred character blossoms under the influence of personalities from the past – in their lessons he learns as much about himself as he does about the sacrifices paving the way to his present day privileges and sense of entitlement.
There’s great representation across the characters we are moved to fall for. Wes’ love interest Patrick (Andy Mientus – who showcases gorgeous harmonies with Huntley) represents for the young gay men with nothing to lose and everything to fight for and John Patridge’s vocally gifted Buddy represents for the gay men leading double lives in a time when saying what repels on the inside keeps you safe on the outside. Dale, played with great pathos by Declan Bennett, offers a moving insight into the feelings of invisibility within the community which is still a very current issue (from ‘no trade’ to ‘no femmes/fats’, it’s all painful rejection).
Carly Mercedes Dyer is our resident no-nonsense bartender with gorgeous vocal talents – there are hints of heartbreak in Henri’s past and Dyer’s assured performance is the perfect depiction of a guarded underdog fighting tooth and nail to create a space for belonging. Garry Lee delights as Freddy who has a lovable light-heartedness to him and a flair for theatrics when he dons his drag.
The very presence of the uniquely comical-motherly Inez (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt) is moving – the fact that a mother would be so in support of her gay son in this era becomes increasingly poignant. Joseph Prouse’s Richard provides the gentle antidote to the antics of some of the whackier characters, introducing an additional dynamic to the gay culture presented. With his dog’s collar and a pervading kindness of spirit, he provides a wholesomeness just as powerful as the ‘Sex on Legs’ elements paraded.
And then there’s the thoroughly fabulous Willie (Cedric Neal) who provides all sorts of gems in the way of wisdom, heart and hilarity. Willie is equal parts hopeless romantic, sassy tea-spiller and wise mother hen type – he’s a brilliant character and Neal is fantastic in the role, not to mention the fact that Neal blows the ceiling off the Soho bringing the heart, soul and vocal magic to various numbers including Theme Song, Abide with Me and each ensemble number.
This is a very funny show with the most clichèd set of millennial quirks attached to its lead character alongside more classic comedy fodder surrounding eccentric gay characters. It’s hilarious and sobering to see characters from 1973 flare up as this vibrantly clueless youngster addresses them with ‘okay bitches’ and ‘listen up queers’; it’s in those moments that Vernon nails the combinations of the brutality of the past and the playful contemporary vernacular of the LGBTQ+ community as it reclaims terms used as weapons against these lovable characters surrounding Wes.
As far as new writing goes, The View Upstairs is something special. It’s not perfect, but it’s close and it brings a worthy story to the stage with humour, heart and deep sense of reverent appreciation. It takes a real tragedy and tastefully tells the tale without smacking of morbid curiosity. It masters the combination of current inane trends and the brutal realities of a darker time. It taps into the common idea of the younger generations not knowing the history behind their day to day freedoms and does so without patronising. Ignorance is harpooned with humour and without losing the impact of pointing out struggles we should all be aware of as we comfortably read empowering Huff Post articles and openly vent our rage at injustices. This is not just great entertainment, it’s work with real purpose and meaning and it’s worthy of extensions and transfers aplenty.
The View Upstairs is presented by Jack Maple and Brian Zeilinger for Take Two Theatricals and Ken Fakler with Creative House Productions. It plays the Soho Theatre until August 24th 2019 and you can get your tickets here.
Photography credits: Darren Bell