A lot has changed for the LGBTQ+ community in 50 years since Stonewall, but the fight is far from over. This new musical by Max Vernon tells the story of the arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, a tragic event that until the Pulse nightclub shootings was the biggest attack on the LGBTQ+ community. This show shines a light on the parallels of being LGBTQ+ back in 1973 and in today’s world. Asking the question; how far have we really come?
Right in the heart of Soho, London’s Gay Village, it’s the perfect place to stage a musical that will capture the hearts and emotions of so many people. It’s a poignant and powerful true story, as we meet a group of characters that face so much heart-ache and pain, yet find joy in each other and the sense of family they’ve created.
We meet Wesley, a young flamboyant social media influencer and clothing designer, who buys what was the UpStairs Lounge for his new clothing store. The day Wesley purchases the building, he falls back in time and finds himself in 1973 amongst a group of people that call the UpStairs Lounge their community.
Tyrone Huntley plays Wesley, a social media influencer and clothing designer that lives the stereotypical 2019 life. Everything is captured on Instagram, he is constantly comparing himself to others and he is projecting this image online that actually is nothing like his reality. Tyrone is charismatic as Wes and he brings sharp humour to the witty dialogue. At first I felt like the character of Wesley was a caricature of Generation Y, with his desperate need to impress people online and inability to live in the moment, but as the narrative progressed I realised quite how scarily real the character is.
It isn’t until he meets Patrick, played by Andy Mientus, that we see his vulnerability. Andy is a young man in the 70s who is confident in his sexuality but struggling to find his way. Kicked out by his parents, he finds his purpose in spending time with this group of people in the UpStairs Lounge. Patrick and Wesley begin to fall for each other, their romance is delicate and tender and it sparks them to not only learn about each other but to understand themselves. They are two different people that live entirely separate lives, but share the connection of growing up gay.
The group of people that view the UpStairs Lounge as their home represent many of the LGBTQ+ community. Buddy is at the centre of the group, played by John Partridge, he is a man unable to live his real life as he is married to a woman with kids but comes to the UpStairs Lounge in order to be true to himself. Freddy (Garry Lee) is a drag queen that performs at the UpStairs Lounge with support from his mother Inez (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt), Henri (Carly Mercedes Dyer) is the sassy lesbian bar owner and Declan Bennett plays troubled prostitute Dale.
Like any production, it has its flaws, but these are minor in the grand scheme of this contemporary musical, that feels like nothing else out there on our stages. It is a revolutionary piece of theatre that puts a group of characters on stage with an essential story to tell.
Mixing jazz, blues and a 70s rock sound, the score is exhilarating. The music is infused with soulful passion, as the cast bring an electric sound to the rocky, dynamic numbers and immense feeling to the belting ballads. Fabian Aloise’s invigorating choreography enhances the beating heart of this community.
This show’s casting is like gold dust, their voices blend together to create a beautiful rich sound that is completely consuming. Tyrone Huntley’s exquisite, emotionally-charged vocals in his final solo number The View Upstairs is an extraordinary ending to this moving show and a real privilege to witness live in such an intimate space.
It all comes together at the end and Wesley and Patrick’s final conversation deeply resonates – which is superbly directed by Jonathan O’Boyle. Wesley has spent his time with Patrick convincing him that it is going to get better, until he starts to question himself. Is the future really that bright? “Look at who our president is,” Wes exclaims. We’ve taken so many steps forward but are we now starting to step back?
The View UpStairs is a reminder of the sacrifices made during the fight for LGBTQ+ rights – and it doesn’t stop there. It’s a stirring musical that makes you think and feel, with a jaw-dropping cast and infectious score. This theatrical experience will uplift, empower and inspire audiences to continue the fight for equality.
The View UpStairs is on at the Soho Theatre until Sat 24 Aug, tickets can be found on their website.
Photo credit // Darren Bell