Soho Theatre – until 24 August 2019
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Inspired by the arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans in 1973 which killed 32 people but was largely ignored by the press and the police at the time, Max Vernon’s musical celebrates and honours the dead in fabulous style.
The annoyingly self-obsessed Wes (Tyrone Huntley) buys a building to convert as part of his mission to further his “brand”, unaware of the terrible event that happened in 1973. As he stands in the room in 2019, he is watched from the shadows by the 1973 regulars, until he is suddenly flung back in time to The UpStairs Lounge in June 1973. There’s lots of fun to be had with this fish out of water concept, and the tempting nostalgia for simpler times without social media and dating apps is quickly tempered by the stories the characters tell about the hatred and bigotry they face. Wes’s blithe insistence that the future will be different and fair becomes less and less convincing as the show progresses, until he finally breaks down and admits the harsh realities of 21st century life and realises that he doesn’t have the community and love shared by the men and women at the bar.
The characters are all composites and therefore a little stereotypical, cheekily acknowledged by Wes saying that he feels like he’s in a Village People video, but this doesn’t affect the emotional impact of their story. Straight talking but soft-hearted Henri (Carly Mercedes Dyer) runs the bar, married man Buddy (John Partridge), whose music career was ruined by rumours about his sexuality, finds solace playing the piano there, and construction worker Freddy (Garry Lee) performs his drag act with help from his mother Inez (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt). Andy Mientus is charming as Patrick, the hustler Wes falls for, and their romance is a sweet centre for the chaotic camaraderie of the group to dance around.
The music is fantastic, with Bob Broad and the band blasting out the upbeat numbers and not overdoing the more introspective songs. The two best numbers of the show come in quick succession and couldn’t contrast more – straight after Garry Lee’s ridiculously OTT barnstorming performance of Sex On Legs comes Declan Bennett’s powerfully bleak and devastating rendition of Better Than Silence, conveying the pain and isolation of Dale, whose behaviour means he is never welcomed as part of the community.
The joy and camaraderie end abruptly with the fire, but this is done sensitively with no melodrama, and the deaths of the characters are described in a brutally resigned way that means the show ends with bittersweet hope for Wes, inspired by the ghosts of the past to make more of his future. The View UpStairs is a sobering reminder of prejudice, but is also uplifting and inspiring, with a score that makes you want to jump on stage to join in the fun.