There have been a number of shows in recent years that have highlighted the deaths of large numbers of people in the LGBT+ community – the National Theatre revival of Angels in America and the Young Vic production of The Inheritance considered the aftereffects of AIDS (as does the Timothy Conigrave play Holding The Man). The View UpStairs, considers a different kind of tragedy, one brought about by a fire in the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar, on Sunday, 24 June 1973, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The fire broke out on the last day of Pride weekend. Coincidental? I think not.
The show could have been longer if it had delved into the details as to why and/or how it happened – but that wouldn’t have made for good theatre: investigations did not result in any convictions. Even the show’s programme is sparse on detail, though it categorically asserts the incident was a “catastrophic arson attack”. It could well have been Rodger Dale Nunez, known only in this show as Dale (Declan Bennett), who had developed a reputation for antagonising other patrons of the bar: he had escaped from whatever psychiatric facility he was being treated in, and was eventually taken by his own hand in 1974. Not that one would know that from seeing the show, which doesn’t do that ‘what happened to them’ thing at the end, so such details are omitted from the play’s conclusion, which instead looks to the future with hope and conviction in the way that musical theatre productions have a tendency to do.
Wes (Tyrone Huntley, treading the boards once more following a directorial debut over at the Southwark Playhouse) finds himself transported (quite how would be revealing too much) from 2019 to 1973, whereupon Willie (Cedric Neal) smashes Wes’ iPhone repeatedly with a hammer, believing it to be a surveillance device. While some harsh realities are avoided in the musical’s narrative, such as church funerals being denied to the victims, there are some personal stories to ponder on. Buddy (John Partridge) has a wife and children, despite being homosexual, but in line with prevailing attitudes at the time (which still prevail in certain sections of American society to this day), he feels he cannot ‘come out’ – though I did wonder what he told his family he was doing with his spare time, spending so much of it at the UpStairs Lounge. Patrick (Andy Mientus), on the other hand, has no communication at all with his relatives, with the expected pain and heartbreak this brings (irrespective of sexual orientation).
The production itself is slick and tight, and there is little to criticise apart from perhaps the odd lyric not being quite decipherable from my front row vantage point. The variation in tone and tempo of the musical numbers is excellent, and there isn’t a dull character amongst this motley crew. Some humour is to be found in Wes’ unimaginative view of ‘the future’ and the likes of Patrick finding Wes’ ‘predictions’ mind-bending and extraordinary. The group comes together to support Freddy (Garry Lee) following an altercation outside, for which a police officer (Derek Hagen), typically, points the finger of blame at the gay community.
Most characters get their big moment – of note are Dale’s ‘Better Than Silence’ and Patrick’s ‘Waltz (Endless Night), bringing some reflective thoughts to an otherwise rather rowdy – and smoky – room. Audiences are capable of thinking for themselves, and do not really need the expositional bits of dialogue that tell us, for example, that Mike Pence, the US vice president, supports ‘conversion therapy’ for homosexuals, and therefore contemporary society hasn’t come as far as it sometimes likes to pride itself on doing. The musical goes even further, though, asserting that Wes’ attitudes towards wealth creation, which take precedence over continuing the fight for justice and equality, are holding back the LGBT+ community from fully flourishing. Make of that what you will.
Truth be told, some of the characters do come across as stereotypical, such as Carly Mercedes Dyer’s Henri, the no-nonsense bar manager, Barbara Windsor’s Peggy ‘get out of my pub’ Mitchell with an American accent. A surprisingly enjoyable evening overall, given the dark storyline, The View UpStairs is worth a visit.