The first European production of Max Vernon’s musical comes to Soho, and provides a story of time travel, understanding, companionship, community, hope, and catastrophe against the backdrop of the arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in 1973 New Orleans (which was also referenced as part of the past of the lead character in Martin Sherman’s play Gently Down The Stream, which I saw earlier this year).
In the dilapidated ruins of the upstairs bar, left vacant for too long, we see first see Buddy (John Partridge) light up the first of many cigarettes, before launching into song and then into the shadows. Instagram celebrity fashionisto Wes (Tyrone Huntley) arrives with the realtor to sign the deal on the place, but he struggles to see its potential.
While taking photos for his feed, the rest of the cast hover in the part-darkness, ghostly reflections of a time gone by, and eventually, Wes finds himself catapulted back from 2019 into the age of payphones, bath-houses, bell-bottoms, and gay invisibility.
The power in the play is that each character is given their chance to shine – Buddy, the pianist with a wife and children at home, with his period-perfect glasses and kerchief; Henri (Carly Mercedes Dyer), the butch with an Afro who rules her domain behind the bar; Willie (Cedric Neal), the “old queen” who once shone at the Ballet Russes because of his legs; Freddy (Garry Lee), the quiet construction worker turned drag queen with a dress made from curtains and a cardboard cock shooting out glitter; Freddy’s mother, Inez (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt), whose dreams of coming to the mainland from Puerto Rico did not involve helping her son with his make-up; and Patrick (Andy Mientus), the teenage hustler.
The twin peaks of brotherhood and ostracisation are represented by the placid Jesus-loving Richard (Joseph Prouse) and angry, homeless outcast Dale (Declan Bennett), whose scenes underline the bond between the UpStairs patrons and their knife-edge relationship with others just outside that circle (the telling scene with the cop (Derek Hagen) who is quickly paid off to allow everyone to stay safe and keep their reputations intact is a good example of how the UpStairs Lounge is in its own little bubble, just as Wes is in his online space in 2019).
Wes’s presence clearly allows Vernon to bring in issues beyond those understood in 1973 – so not just hate crimes, gay-bashing, abuse, but the spectre of AIDS and the victory – of sorts – of becoming more accepted by some sections of society. Wes is a shallow and vain individual defined only by his followers and likes, but he slowly comes to understand the value of friendship and fellowship by interacting with each patron of the club. He also falls in love, perhaps for the first time, with Patrick, leading to some moving scenes between the two young men, reflecting on the differences in courtship and hook-ups across the forty-year time-gap.
The characters are of course, fictional, although the basic facts of the arson attack on the UpStairs are not – there was a man who visited each week, and was closeted, his family only discovering the truth when his body was found fused to that of his boyfriend; there was a house pianist (in fact two, Bud and David, both perished in the fire); there was a mother called Inez; and there was a man who burned to death trapped by the window bars, his body remaining there for a day afterwards, the church reverend who had led the service of hope and belonging earlier that evening.
The View UpStairs has catchy songs, both for ensemble and solo performers, and it has humour as well as political nous and moments that will make you gasp or find yourself in tears. The fire itself is evoked by lighting and movement, then by Patrick filling in the details as the final ghost standing in Wes’s new commercial space, the space which is finally filled with the images time and custom had forgotten for all those years.
This is a remarkable musical, with no mis-steps from any of the cast (Partridge, Neal, Huntley and Lee excel, but everyone is very good), and a fine house band led by musical director Bob Broad. Jonathan O’Boyle directs (and with some audience members on the stage as if they are non-player characters in the space that may be challenging), and Fabian Aloise choreographs a brilliant set of sequences which utilise the chairs, bar and every inch of the compact stage.
The View UpStairs continues at the Soho Theatre until 24 August 2019. I got an early-bird discounted ticket for the second row, but there are good sightlines across the space wherever you choose to sit.
Photo credits Darren Bell.