Words: Tom Stichbury
Sitting down to watch buzzed-about musical The View UpStairs, you brace yourself for grim viewing, inspired as it is by the true story of the 1973 arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans.
Claiming the lives of 32 people, it was the biggest act of violence against the LGBTQ community up until the Pulse nightclub shooting three years ago.
But creator and self-proclaimed theatre provocateur Max Vernon has managed to create something joyful, heart-melting and even triumphant from the ashes of an often overlooked tragedy – with a colourful catalogue of witty, wriggly earworm songs to boot.
That’s not to say that the show, which was a hit off-Broadway, doesn’t trigger any teardrops; trust, even the coldest bitch will have her tearducts drained dry.
Beginning in the present day, we’re introduced to millennial fashion designer and Instagram influencer Wes (Tyrone Huntley), a vacuous cow who only cares for “likes”, spon money and his snail trail skincare regime. In fairness, his skin is flawless. He is insufferable, initially at least.
Losing his way in the fog of living his best filtered life for his followers, Wes flees New York to start over in New Orleans, snapping up an abandoned building in the French Quarter. Little does he know that his dilapidated digs once housed the UpStairs Lounge.
With the help of a spot of time travel (always a nifty plot device), Wes is transported back to the Seventies, where he is eventually taken under the wing of his LGBTQ brothers and sisters of yesteryear, including closeted married man and singer Buddy (John Partridge), drag queen Freddy (Garry Lee), homeless hustler Dale (Declan Bennett), lesbian manager Henri (Carly Mercedes Dyer) and “best legs in town” Willie (a scene-devouring Cedric Neal).
Phone confiscated, Wes can’t even Insta his experience as he slowly but surely learns that maybe there is more to his existence than being “on brand” as he unpicks the stories of this rainbow-coloured family, men and women who found a haven – albeit one regularly raided by the police – in a teeny-tiny bar where they can truly be themselves without fear of being abused, or worse. So they thought.
Actor Andy Mientus (left) and writer Max Vernon discuss The View UpStairs in Attitude's new August issue, out now.
The foreshadowing of what’s to come makes the bubbling romance between Wes and a sweet sex worker named Patrick (Andy Mientus, of Smash fame) that much more affecting. Like watching Titanic, knowing the ship will hit the iceberg, but foolishly praying that it won’t, you’re not quite prepared for the moment the blaze strikes, and it serves a gut punch of emotions that stays with you long after the proverbial curtain has fallen.
Quibbles-wise, I wasn’t particularly fond of Partridge’s fake piano-playing (like a bad Elton John impersonator), nor the otherwise strong Bennett’s wavering southern accent.
One of the few productions capable of making you smile, laugh and openly weep all at once, The View UpStairs bridges the gap between the past and present of LGBTQ culture, celebrating community spirit and also the importance of not forgetting history – as it has a nasty habit of repeating itself.
'The View UpStairs' runs at London’s Soho Theatre until 24 August. For the best deals on tickets click here.