When Instagram superstar and ‘influencer’ Wes buys up a disused building in New Orleans’ French Quarter to be the headquarters of his new fashion brand, little does he know that it was once the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar that was the real-life site of a 1973 arson attack that killed 32 people.
Premiered in New York two years ago, Max Vernon’s The View UpStairs follows its millennial protagonist on a time-travelling trip to meet the bar’s former regulars: a bunch of marginalised queers who find refuge within its walls under the watchful eye of no-nonsense lesbian proprietor Henri (Carly Mercedes Dyer) and straight-acting, droopy-tashed house pianist Buddy (John Partridge).
Broadly drawn, these stereotypes have relatively little opportunity to become fully fleshed-out characters: Tyrone Huntley as Wes, is the epitome of irritating self-absorption until he shows disarming vulnerability when seduced by Andy Mientus’ young hustler Patrick. And while Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s Inez is a proud mother figure, there’s little chance to explore how her hispanic cultural values might clash with those of her brash drag queen son (Garry Lee).
The songs may veer towards generic 1970s pop-rock, but the cast is in excellent voice throughout, with Huntley, Dyer and Cedric Neal providing particularly impressive vocals, enhanced by Fabian Aloise’s neatly effective routines on Lee Newby’s evocative set, which captures the fug-filled cosiness of a bygone era before the inevitable inferno envelops the action.
Overall, it’s an enjoyable show, but with a tighter book could prove an even more effective exploration of an age when being gay could put people in mortal danger. While the lot of LGBT+ people has become easier, The View UpStairs should serve as a warning that it’s far from perfect.