The atmosphere of The View Upstairs is set as soon as the audience takes their seats. The lights are dim and the air is hazy; a piano sits proudly centre stage backed by red velvet curtains; bar stools litter the stage and a live band play light jazz in the background.
The production seeks to recreate the UpStairs Lounge, a real New Orleans gay bar which was tragically destroyed by arson in 1973, killing 32 people – the single deadliest attack on the LGBT+ community in the USA until the Pulse shooting in Orlando in 2016. Set designer Lee Newby and lighting designer Nic Farman have done a fantastic job of bringing to life the ambience and atmosphere of the bar: the aesthetics are evocative and highly realistic; the lighting transitions are so subtle and in tune with the performance that, at one point, it takes me a good ten seconds to consciously notice that it’s the disco ball creating the dappled, almost starlight, effect across audience and stage. There is even some audience seating incorporated onstage, to further enable a sense of immersion and stepping into the past.
The premise of this new musical centres on the meeting of past and present. 2019 influencer and New York fashion gay Wes (Tyrone Huntley) has just bought the building that used to be the UpStairs Lounge, when he finds himself transported back to the bar in 1973. Confronted with the stark and suddenly very real history of the LGBT+ community, Wes struggles to connect with and comprehend the lives of these gay men which are so vastly different from his own experience.
The themes explored in The View Upstairs feel incredibly pertinent to the LGBT+ community today. The issues facing the ‘70s characters are largely external: police violence, electro-shock therapy, unemployment, homelessness… but they support one another and have a strong sense of community. In contrast, Wes’ problems in life are internal, stemming from poor mental health, an obsession with social media status, and an inability to emotionally connect with the people around him. The effect of the internet on the queer community is rarely discussed and The View Upstairs presents an interesting and nuanced perspective of how it has both helped and harmed.
The musical numbers in feel natural and are woven seamlessly into the action. None of the songs (written by Max Vernon) are especially catchy or stand-out, however they do create atmosphere and feel in tune with the overall style of the show. The production certainly achieves its aim of creating living queer history in the modern day.
At times, though, The View UpStairs is so intent on hammering home its central message that it leaves little room for the characters to breathe. The plot unfolds in one continuous act and there are no real surprises in the narrative. From the start it is clear who will be the romantic interest, who will be the antagonist; it’s not so much foreshadowing as it is lazy storytelling. Crucially, the romance between Wes and Patrick lacks chemistry, in part because it feels like a done deal from the offset – there’s no suspense.
The View UpStairs is entertaining and impactful – it will give a lot of audience members pause for thought. The acting is flawless (even in the freak heatwave!) and the design of the whole production is impressive.
Yet I can’t help but wish that the show could get past its original concept, to allow for greater character development and a broader range of ideas to be addressed. The ending, in particular, feels at odds with the rest of the piece: on return to the modern day, Wes’s ‘tribute’ to his ‘70s friends is a neat, trite conclusion to what the show has previously set up as a complex and nuanced debate around how we can honour our LGBT+ dead and connect with our history. The View UpStairs provokes discussion but it fails to offer up a satisfying solution to the questions it poses.
Photo credits to Darren Bell. The View Upstairs is running at the Soho Theatre until 24 August: more info and tickets here.
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