The 1973 arson attack on LGBTQ+ venue, the UpStairs Lounge, was - until the 2016 Orlando shooting - the most deadly anti-LGBTQ+ attack in US history, with a death toll of 32. In the present-day, the LGBTQ+ community is having something of a mental health crisis: LGBTQ+ young people are eight times more likely than their non-LGBTQ+ peers to experience depression, and three times more likely to attempt suicide.
This isn’t obvious musical material. Yet, after an off-Broadway run back in 2017, The View UpStairs - following modern-day LGBTQ+ socialite, Wes, as he travels back in time to the UpStairs lounge on the day of the aforementioned arson attack - makes its European premiere at the Soho Theatre, London.
It’s a bold concept, and provides ample opportunity to compare changing LGBTQ+ experiences across time. Wes, as the audience surrogate, is a fish out of water in 1973, as he grapples with a whole new brand of dating culture, community and LGBTQ+ politics - where online dating is the stuff of science fiction, conversion therapy is rife and “staying alive / that’s all the revenge I need”. Unfortunately, as a character, Wes is disappointingly two-dimensional. He feels more like a caricatured vessel for an unsympathetic picture of the modern gay male condition than any sort of believable person. This isn’t helped by his total insensitivity to the 1973 context he is transposed into, being genuinely unable to understand the existence of an LGBTQ+ world beyond Grindr, to the point where disbelief can no longer be suspended.
On top of this, the Max Vernon’s rendering of modern-day youth culture is at best weak and at worst offensive. Much of the comedy in The View UpStairs comes from Wes being #triggered at being sexually assaulted and ‘hate-crimed’. Though the overriding message of The View UpStairs is, refreshingly, that both 2019 and 1973 have distinct LGBTQ+ issues, the tone The View UpStairs takes is nonetheless one which disparages modern-day young people for their supposed oversensitivity. Though present-day LGBTQ+ mental health issues are afforded a fair amount of stage time, the structural underpinnings of this are never explored in any real depth and Wes’s therapist becomes a running punchline. And though, towards its end, The View UpStairs makes the interesting point that the same people who enacted anti-gay violence in the past still hold office, often with the exact same infrastructures in place, this is not enough to work against the tonal undercurrent of ‘the kids are so touchy nowadays’. Part of the issue here is perhaps that The View UpStairs tries to cover every corner of the LGBTQ+ experience - pinkwashing, online dating, misogyny, mental health issues and more - in two hours. Had Wes been given a more specific LGBTQ-related oversight - not just total naivity and lack of common sense - The View Upstairs would likely have a much easier time resolving his arc in a satisfying way, with scope for deeper exploration of the issues it raises.
In trying to pack in so much, The View UpStairs is also often teeth-gratingly on-the-nose. In his solo number, ‘#householdname’, Wes claims - unprompted - “I don't need community / I don't have to belong / 'cause my forty thousand followers on Instagram just can't be wrong”. That is, much of The View UpStairs feels like a thinly-veiled vessel for comparison between the two eras. It lacks a wider story-world, and never really makes sense of its slightly meandering plot - or why it’s a two-hour-long musical, as opposed to a think-piece.
Equally, the time-travel element is never really explained. Whilst it’s implied to be some sort of drug-induced dream-world that lets Wes see the ghosts of his newly-bought house, if Wes himself is so shockingly unaware of LGBTQ+ history, how do drugs take him into a world of LGBTQ+ history of which he is supposedly ignorant? The time-travel feels like an underexplored mechanism for superimposing Wes within the 1973 narrative. Though, in it’s closing moments, The View UpStairs leans into its own inexplicability (“I don’t know, I’m dead and magical”, says a 1973 character, in response to a question from Wes), this doesn’t carry through into the production as a whole. It feels as though team behind The View UpStairs need to either totally lean into the plotholes and exposition - in the sense of “this is a thinly pieced together plot because THIS is more important” - or get a handle on the temporal dramaturgies.
To Max Vernon’s credit, The View UpStairs has some moments of dramaturgical brilliance. The inclusion of bar-owner and matriarch Henri (Carly Mercedes Dyer), an outspoken butch lesbian, ensured that, in a play which is so much about gay men, the role of women in the LGBTQ+ rights movement is thoroughly recognised. And opening not with Wes in 2019, but with Buddy (John Partridge) - a married pianist - in 1973 is a clever way of establishing the universe with minimal exposition. Unfortunately, these snapshots of more efficient dramaturgy are overpowered by a broader narrative in need of tightening up.
Setting aside the dramaturgical holes in its book, The View UpStairs is a very well-done piece of musical theatre. Its choreography (Fabian Aloise and Ruthie Stephens) gives it the punch to carry it through its interval-free 110 minutes, whilst avoiding feeling penned in by what is essentially a studio stage. The ‘#householdname’ direction (Jonathan O’Boyle) and lighting design (Nic Farman), with Wes unknowingly disrupting the ghosts of the 1973 narrative, together amount to sheer theatrical magic. And Max Vernon’s 70’s pop-rock soundtrack includes some absolute bops, which are universally catchy and intelligently-composed.
Though pinning down stand-out performances is difficult given the degree of talent on offer, Cedric Neal absolutely shines as Willie, a veteran member of the UpStairs Lounge; the almost paternal dynamic between Willie and Wes is also incredibly well-directed, making sense of Wes’s journey through the evening, and providing some refreshing heterogeneity amongst the 1973 characters. Equally, Freddy’s (Gary Lee) drag show - complete with fishnets, corsets and sparkly confetti - injects The View UpStairs with some much needed oomph, and the scenes between Freddy and his mother, Inez (Victoria Hamilton Barritt), provide a genuinely heartwarming and candid rendering of Hispanic LGBTQ+ culture.
Overall, The View UpStairs is a basically enjoyable exploration of the LGBTQ+ generation gap - but what it has in warmth, it lacks in nuance, depth and story. With a tighter arc and less busy thematic angle, it could be an instant LGBTQ+ classic. But, as it stands, its dramaturgical issues prevent it having the emotional whack that its subject matter demands.