If there is a better cast assembled in any theatre in London at the moment, I am not aware of it. This is a stellar group of performers, featuring some of my personal favourites.
The View Upstairs is a new musical written by Max Vernon inspired by the tragic story of the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans that was subject to an arson attack in 1973 which resulted in 32 people being killed.
The set is the most extravagant I have seen at the Soho Theatre with the bar replicated complete with baby grand piano. Some audience members’ seats are dotted about the bar, giving them an interesting view of the action.
The show opens in 1973 with Buddy (John Partridge) alone at the piano with a cigarette and a whiskey. He hauntingly starts “Some Kind of Paradise” before being joined by the rest of the cast, at which point the song turns into a bouncing pop tune. As the song finishes and the bar patrons fade into the background, we are back to present day as Wes (the fantastic Tyrone Huntley) enters the bar with the estate agent who is finalising the sale of the derelict bar to him. After a rousing song “household name” giving us some of his back story, Wes takes a celebratory snort of cocaine and finds himself back in 1973.
By the wonders of modern theatre, the bar patrons do not seem overly perturbed by this man from the future arriving; beyond smashing his mobile phone; while Wes initially blames the drugs for his time-travelling before quickly accepting the situation and engaging with everyone in the bar including Henri, the lesbian bar owner, Freddy, a construction worker by day, drag artist by night, Freddy’s mother Inez, Dale, the homeless angry drifter, Wille, Patrick, who quickly becomes Wes’s love interest and Richard, the Vicar.
By having a modern day character transported back to 1973, the writer has been able to compare and contrast the lives being lived. Despite the oppression being suffered, Wes finds something attractively straightforward about the 1973 life, while the bar patrons find Wes’s confidence in who he is radical and unusual. Wes recognises that much has changed since the early 1970s but he is keen to reference the challenges that still exist for the LBGTQ community. Some of the (brief) political comment feels a little forced (possibly added later in response to circumstances in America) and could date this piece which has everything it needs to become a classic of musical theatre.
Given that the writer doesn’t shy away from making political comment, it does seem rather strange that Wes, going from present back to 1973, makes only a tiny aside about the impending AIDs crisis. In fairness it could be a huge topic to try to include, but the way it is side-stepped is a little jarring.
At 1 hour 45 minutes the show absolutely flies by, but with 9 main characters we don’t really get to know most of them in great detail. One of the exceptions to that is Inez, mother of drag artist Freddy, played by Victoria Hamilton-Barritt. The character of Inez is the least relevant in this show but gets a great song to herself to tell her back story. Hamilton-Barritt is a superb, Olivier nominated performer, but Inez’s presence in this story feels pointless. The time could have been better spent on other characters.
This is particularly true of the character Richard, played by Joseph Prouse. The upstairs bar was also, rather bizarrely, a place of worship. The Metropolitan Community Church was the first in America to cater to LGBTQ congregations and on the day of the attack in 1973, a Sunday service had been held at the lounge. None of this is really explained in the show there is just suddenly a prayer meeting taking place which for me was certainly a “wait, wtf?” moment.
The character of Willie, beautifully played by Cedric Neal, also feels under-developed. There are hints of a past as a dancer cut short by a tyrannical prima ballerina, but very little else. I am quite late to the joys of Cedric Neal (a recent semi-finalist on The Voice) having seen him for the first-time last year playing Martin Luther King Jr in a concert staging of the musical “King” in which he was absolutely outstanding. (I can only hope he is working hard to persuade his mentor on The Voice, Tom Jones, to fund a West End run of that astonishing piece). I feel that here Neal is tragically under-utilised, although I must admit that even if he sung every part it would probably not be enough for me!!
What can I say about John Partridge generally, and specifically in this role as Buddy? He is just on another level. Every actor in this production is excellent, but while they are acting, Partridge is just utterly inhabiting his character. Buddy, married with children, is the inhouse pianist, central to a bar whose culture he loves and loathes in equal measure. Terrified of being exposed and his family finding out who he truly is, Buddy is a coiled spring, uncomfortable to watch at times but utterly mesmerising. At one point Partridge engages with one of the audience members seated in the bar, the man’s face was a mix of star struck and pure terror!
Despite the extraordinarily talented and experienced actors in this cast, it is relative new-comer, Garry Lee who, as Freddy, threatens to steal the show. Lee is absolutely superb as the construction by day, drag queen by night character trying to get on with his life while facing prejudice, abuse and attack on a regular basis. Due to perform at the bar, he arrives beaten up and having had his clothes and make up stolen. In a fabulous “Gone with the Wind” moment, Wes rustles up an outfit from the curtains and Freddy unleashes Aurora Whorealis in all her glory.
This is a beautiful piece of theatre, delivered by an extraordinary cast and criticising seems a little churlish but I feel it would be better served as a full-length piece allowing more detailed characters to develop. The songs and the music are superb with hints of Rent, Hedwig and Hair (writer Max Vernon quotes the latter two as favourites).
Reviewed by Emma Heath
FOLLOW WEST END WILMA