IN BRIEF – Socially significant, superbly cast, sung and written time-slip musical reminds us of the importance of community.
Meet Wes, a man of our times – a neurotic, tech-addicted, self-obsessed Millennial fashion designer who luxuriates in a huge following on social media (“I don’t need community”, he brags). Wes buys an abandoned old building in New Orleans for his new flagship store. The building, however, is still occupied – by the spirits of those who frequented the gay bar The Upstairs Lounge before it was torched in a hate crime in 1973.
Wes is transported back to that time to meet a disparate group of characters who found refuge at the Lounge, all in situations familiar to LGBT people in 1973 – a closeted married composer who missed fame by being too visibly gay, the Puerto Rican drag queen and his devoted Mother, the ballsy lesbian owner, homeless men forced into hustling… and several others. Each has a story, told through song.
This is a far from idealised community; friction, jealousy and tension pepper the script, from the crooked cop busting the joint, to internal group fighting, the atmosphere is heady and volatile.
Forced to be tech-free, away from distractions, Wes focuses on the first-hand experience and lives “in the moment” for a brief time. As his bewilderment slowly subsides, he finds himself drawn to Patrick, a young man of about his own young age, whose story like most of the others is of family rejection, destitution and struggle, who had none of Wes’s good fortune, and yet he echoes Wes’s own feelings of being empty, alone and fearful. They fall for each other, but the story already has its inevitable -tragic- ending.
The culture clash of a “have it all” millennial finding a kind of alter-ego in a bruised, struggling hustler from an earlier time is effective and engaging. Wes is searching for many things but Patrick nails it when he points out that what Wes has is “not community but commerce”.
Based on true events, Max Vernon’s impressive one-man show of book, music and lyrics amply illustrate that he is adept at all three, but Vernon’s biggest strength is undoubtedly in the music. The time-slip idea works for the music in that Wes’s numbers have a contemporary feel but the other characters’ numbers are expertly anchored in the seventies. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the music and arrangements have referenced distinct 70s sounds, styles and themes, weaving through the score and giving it a pleasing authenticity. It’s tough to pick out favourites but the opener Some Kind of Paradise, Are You Listening God? and the penultimate Theme Song work for me; the score is of a consistently high standard, elevated still further by superb vocals.
The entire company are well-cast, giving excellent performances with voices to match. The small but tight band bring the very best out of the music (although at times the sound balance drowned out the lyrics, disappointingly) and the baby grand piano onstage gives value, although hogging centre stage it rather limits the choreography. The static set is appropriately run-down, though enjoyably detailed. Lighting does some good work here too. Direction by Jonathan Boyle is strong and compassionate.
Tyrone Huntley is perfectly cast as Wes, his “front” turning to something more vulnerable as the show progresses, with an eloquent, soulful voice (heard earlier in the year in the superb Leave To Remain) which manages to fit both “then” and “now” into its range. Andy Mientus is appealing and moving as the young Patrick, forced to sell himself on the streets after running away from his conversion-therapy minded family. He subtly conveys the hopelessness of his situation but also the spark of promise that could have been his life. He sings superbly too, his songs full of passion and sincerity in simple uncluttered arrangements which allow his lyrical vocals to shine. Cedric Neal is imbued with sass, class and a gift of a voice; Carly Mercedes Dyer soars vocally and rocks a great Afro hairstyle; and John Partridge is convincingly and uncomfortably self-loathing as Buddy with a singing voice reflecting his experience. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt makes the most of her moments, her quiet, reflective song about the love for her son particularly affecting.
This is a heartfelt and powerfully sung reminder of how far the LGBTQIA community have come. But for those (like Wes) too young to remember 1973, it’s also a wake-up call to know and value your history- and to remember those who fought -and died- for the rights that some LGBTQIA people now enjoy. In these volatile times, Vernon’s show is the perfect jolt that’s needed to be aware of the past and alert to the present.
THE VIEW UPSTAIRS plays at the Soho Theatre until 24 August. Information and tickets here.