Book, Music & Lyrics: Max Vernon
Director: Jonathan O’Boyle
Reviewer: Heather Deacon
Two years after its premiere at New York’s Lynn Redgrave Theater, the self-professed provocative musical, The View Upstairs, finally makes it to London, shaking up the Soho Theatre with a stirring, sensitive score and peerless performances. Based on a true story, the show is rocking if a little rocky and it’s easy to tell why it is well-loved by the likes of Ru Paul.
Musical theatre fans will be glad to see Tyrone Huntley returning to acting after his directorial stint at the Southwark Playhouse. Here he is Wes, an achingly fabulous social media influencer-cum-fashion designer who’s buying an old building in New Orleans to house his brand’s flagship store (‘#Householdname’). The building isn’t pretty; dank, dark, in need of a million licks of paint… and has the bizarre capability to take you literally back in time to 1973, when it was the victim of the deadliest known attack on a gay club in U.S. history until the 2006 Orlando nightclub shooting.
Wes soon meets the makeshift family of UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar under constant scrutiny from neighbours and the police, as most were. There’s Buddy the resident pianist, torn between his LGBT family and his family at home; Henri, the painfully stereotyped sassy landlady lesbian; the troubled and tightly wound Dale; construction worker Freddy, aka drag queen Aurora Whorealis, and his Latino mother; and young hustler Patrick, head permanently in the clouds. They’re a real amalgamation of the gay experience in the 70s and all get their moment in the spotlight, painting a raw and raucous picture of that time as well as its similarities and juxtapositions to Wes’ 2019, hilarity often ensuing.
Young talent Max Vernon takes on the book, music and lyrics, gloriously mixing genres and various levels of melancholy. Ensemble numbers are plentiful with ‘Are You Listening God’ being the most memorable and grounding – the Upstairs Lounge clientele were part of the Metropolitan Community Church, the USA’s first gay Protestant denomination. Solo numbers strip away the cliches, especially the rather incredible Declan Bennett’s raw, heart-wrenching performance as Dale singing ‘Better Than Silence’. Andy Mientus as Patrick also delivers a particularly touching performance of the beautiful ‘Waltz’, which delves into the unfortunately still-relevant issue of conversion therapy.
Then there is John Partridge (of Eastender’s fame) as Buddy’s soulful opening number, ‘Some Kind of Paradise’, which begins under a smoky spotlight, beautifully imagined by lighting designer Nic Farman, and builds into a Fabian Aloise choreographed extravaganza, no mean feat on the small stage. Garry Lee, a force of nature as Freddy, high kicks the show into high gear with the brassy ‘Sex on Legs’ though most lyrics were lost in the guitar verberating, a reoccurring problem and a shame when there are moments of joyous lyrical genius throughout.
A View Upstairs is gorgeous if a little contrived but so worth the ticket price for the performances and history lesson.
Runs until 24 August 2019 | Image: Contributed