Curtain Down

The View Upstairs

Reviewer's rating

Get the first fifteen minutes of a show right, and the audience will go anywhere you lead them. Get it wrong, and it makes for a VERY long evening of theatre.

So, to The View Upstairs which has just opened at The Soho Theatre. And here I quote from the programme…

‘On 24th June 1973, the final day of the Pride weekend celebrations, the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar located in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana was the victim of a catastrophic arson attack. Thirty-two people died as a result of fire or smoke inhalation.’

Until the 2016 attack on the Pulse nightclub, the fire, which lasted just 16 minutes, was the deadliest attack on the LGBTQ+ community in US history.

The View Upstairs attempts the very laudable task of giving those victims a voice, and life. People who, though shunned by society and often their own families, found a new family in the community at The Upstairs Lounge. This was a show which, as a gay man myself, I wanted to like…

Where to begin…the show ‘tries’ to be about a fashion designer from New York who returns to his New Orleans roots, buys the building in which the fire has happened – apparently being unaware of its history – and after taking some ‘bad’ drugs time-slips back to June 24th 1973 where he meets and interacts with the patrons, falls in love with a beautiful lost soul – possibly for the first time – only to lose them all in the conflagration. Being so effected by the story he believes himself to have been part of, he rather improbably seeks to memorialise the victims…by designing frocks. Hmm…

From what I’ve written you might surmise that the show would start in the present, then flashback to 1973. Possibly with an opening number about how ruthless and shallow the fashion world is, and how easily it is for a young designer to lose their way? Something to set up the protagonist Wes (an ever excellent Tyrone Huntley) with his new venture? Then perhaps something about Wes’s big dream? As it’s still the prologue, perhaps Wes wouldn’t even have to sing, just clearly state to us what his hopes were for the future?

Nope. The show opens with a completely superfluous company number set in 1973.

Then zoom back to the present where Wes, a completely vacuous, self-obsessed and (even in the hands of Tyrone Huntley), unlikeable millennial fashionista buys the property where the disaster happened, seemingly after having done little to no due diligence, and celebrates by taking a hefty dollop of the bad drugs which send him time-travelling back to 1973.

Adding insult to injury, the third number in is a perfectly acceptable, if not to say actually rather good…Opening Number. Cut the first two songs and open with dialogue scenes of Wes signing the deeds to the building and the show would probably work. Be joyous in fact. We’d be transported from the money obsessed world of today to the magic-realism of the community in 1973. In the same way that in The Wizard of Oz we are transported from the sepia-toned realism of depression-era Kansas, to the sparkling full-colour musical world of Oz.

We aren’t. It’s a VERY long evening and it’s clear why there’s no interval…or, as I might paraphrase it, opportunity to leave before Act Two.

I have only 600 words, which I’m fast approaching, so let me end by saying…this production has a great cast, a great band under Bob Broad, and a great set. It’s just not a great show. Which is a shame. It’s so nearly there it hurts because it could be an important show.

Currently it’s just a show desperately in need of a re-write.