The View Upstairs by Max Vernon. Soho Theatre, Dean Street, London W1 to 24 August. 3*** . William Russell

The View Upstairs
By Max Vernon.
Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1D 3NE to 24 August 2019.
Mon- Sat 7.15pm Mat Thu & Sat 2.30pm.
Runs 1hr 50 mins No interval.
TICKETS: 020 7478 0100.
Review: William Russell 23 July

The performances save the day in this rather preachy and badly in need of a better book musical about a gay bar in 1973 New Orleans called the Upstairs Lounge. It was fire bombed that year and 32 people died. The story is true – and shocking. Nobody was ever charged with the crime. Max Vernon, who wrote music, lyrics and book has created a story in which 2019 New York fashionista comes to the city to set up a business in the now derelict premises and in a time shift, which is never really explained, finds himself back in 1973. The result is a clash between how people behaved then and now, about the limitations gay people survived under somehow and the freedoms that have been gained. The problem is that Wes, the fashionista, given a gloriously camp and tough performance by Tyrone Huntley, seems unable to grasp he is back in time, and as written the character really would never have delivered the final things are still not ideal message, the homophobes still rule – even in the United States as well as in many other countries round the world. The plot, such as it is, requires him to fall for Patrick, a good looking young hustler on the streets since he was 14, played very well indeed by Andy Mientus. The cast is strong, the characters stock and while Victoria Hamilton-Barritt is good as the mother of the transvestite drag queen – the fashonista devises a dress for him – she looks young enough to be his daughter which lends an air un unreality to it all. Naturally the owner is a tough old broad dropping wise cracks, there is a married pianist with a secret gay life, a witty old queen and a homeless man who takes offence when the users allow Wes and Patrick to spend the night there. Why did they never do that for him? He also flashes a cigarette lighter leaving it pretty clear who set the place on fire.
The message is really pretty old hat, the score thuds along without ever coming up with anything you want to hear again. But the cast do deliver the goods, Huntley confirms, if it needs confirming, that he is blessed with star quality, and Mientus sings beautifully and creates a touching portrait of a young man who did what he had to do to survive – but does not survive the fire. The club, like so many premises tolerated if not actually licensed by authority, has no fire escapes and barred windows. It happened in London some years ago where a gay cinema was set alight by a discontented customer and people died.
The cops, of course, are corrupt – there is a scene when one comes in, threatens the inmates and is sent away with the contents of the charity collection kept in a glass jar on the bar. The clash between the grindr experience, invoke the law, go to the media and Facebook/Instagram world to seek both retribution and wear a condom sex of 2019 New York and the keep a low profile at all costs, gay bar cruising world of 1973 should be fascinating – it could be informative to some of the likely audience. But the book just doesn’t rise to the story and the score isn’t powerful enough to take up the slack in spite of the efforts of director Jonathan O’Boyle. Things are saved by that first rate cast, even when confronted with cliché characters to play. The other thing is if the fire was that bad the premises must have been destroyed so what was there for Wes to buy for his Louisiana purchase?

Dale: Declan Bennett.
Cops/Realtor: Derek Hagen.
Inez: Victoria Hamilton-Barritt.
Wes: Tyrone Huntley.
Freddy: Garry Lee.
Heni: Carly Mercedes Dyer.
Patrick: Andy Mientus.
Willie: Cedric Neal.
Buddy: John Partridge.
Richard: Joseph Prouse.

Director: Jonathan O’Boyle.
Choreographer: Fabian Aloise.
Musical Director: Bob Broad.
Set & Costume Designer: Lee Newby.
Lighting Designer: Nic Farman.
Sound Designer: Adam Fisher.
Fight Director: Alister Hawke.
Production photographs: Darren Bell.

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