Paul T Davies reviews The View Upstairs, now playing at Soho Theatre, London.
The View Upstairs.
Soho Theatre, London
25 July 2019
On 24th June 1973, the Upstairs Lounge, a gay bar situated in the French Quarter of New Orleans, was the victim of an arson attack. Thirty-two people died. Until the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016, where 49 people were murdered, the Upstairs Lounge arson attack was the deadliest on the LGBTQ+ community in US history. It went largely unreported, and is still unresolved. I was unaware of it, until it was referenced in Martin Sherman’s play Gently Down the Stream, which I saw at the Park Theatre earlier this year. In a rare and beautiful act of theatrical cross-pollination, Max Vernon’s outstanding musical is staged in the heart of Soho, and pays tribute and gives voice to those who lost their lives.
This is not just a musical; it’s an act of activism as Wes, a contemporary social media influencer, is on the verge of buying the shell of the club to turn it into a store. Through the magic of theatre, (and if you can’t believe in unlikely events that bring on a musical examining homophobia in two-time streams, why the hell are you in the audience), he time travels back to 1973 on the verge of the attack. He finds the community that existed, locked away in a safe space, yet one vulnerable from attack from the law and citizens. The Soho Theatre Upstairs Theatre is a perfect space, and the superb design by Lee Newby takes us back to New Orleans, and, on the hottest day of the year, the atmosphere was perfect!
And what a perfect ensemble. From the opening note, of the anthem Some Kind of Paradise, it held me in its LGBTQ heart until the final beat. Each character has been well drawn and defined. Tyrone Huntley is excellent as Wes, fierce and seeing money as a success, slowly beginning to understand community and history. An almost unrecognisable John Partridge is an outstanding Buddy, piano player, failed music star, bitter and deeply unhappy, these characters are flawed, and there are no angels here. Carly Mercedes Dyer, so good in Ain’t Misbehaving earlier this year, is equally good here as sassy, sarcastic and hilarious Henri, the owner and matriarch of this community, Garry Lee muscular and feminine as drag queen Freddy, supported by his beautiful mother Inez, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt in fine form. The heart of the show is Andy Mientus’s Patrick, falling in love with Wes, vulnerable and tender, and Joseph Prouse the peacemaker Richard, bringing faith into the club. Vocally the cast are outstanding and step forward Cedric Neal as Willie, whose singing just left me in awe. However, the mesmerising performance for me was Declan Bennett as homeless, self-loathing, self-pitying hustler Dale, and the man who is widely considered to have set the fire. (He killed himself a year after the attack.) It’s troubling and confronts us with our own attitudes and homophobia. The fire and the grim reality of it is dealt with respectfully and movingly.
The subject matter is heavy, but there are many light moments, both within the book and the lyrics, and the contrast between then and now are beautifully highlighted. Whilst Wes reminds us of the advances and progress made, Vernon is strong in underlining that internalised homophobia and self-hatred is still a strong presence, and that is as damaging as any threat from the “outside” world. Gay men of my age all had an Upstairs Lounge, a club we went to find kindred spirits, a safe place, but one we denied, said we “wouldn’t be seen dead in. “ Luckily we didn’t die in them, and this piece not only honours LGBTQ+ people of the past, but of the present and future. It brought whoops and shouts from the audience, and whether you’re LGBTQ+ or an ally, get yourself to see this original, moving, strong musical, which, when a third of the PM’s new cabinet voted against legislation to improve the lives of LGBTQ+ people, is VITAL.