The View Upstairs

The View Upstairs
By Max Vernon. Invisible Wall Productions and Sugary Rum Productions in association with 
Hayes Theatre Co. Directed by Shaun Rennie. Hayes Theatre, Sydney. February 8 - March 11, 2018

Bars have long been central to gay life. In communities that were hidden for many years, they were often the only place to meet friends or a partner. But they’re much less pivotal than they were: in today’s world, where same-sex marriage is legal, and gay men meet online, the need for a gathering place based around sexuality has much diminished.

So has the community that went with it.

Which is better - then or now? That’s the theme explored in the new musical The View Upstairs, which premiered off-Broadway last year, written by a young New Yorker, Max Vernon. The show’s conceit is clever: transport a self-obsessed young man who’s bought a former gay bar back to meet the characters who once inhabited it. The setting is especially poignant: a nightclub in New Orleans, where 32 people were killed in an arson attack in 1973. Until Orlando in 2016, it was the worst attack at a gay bar in the US.

The View Upstairs is patchy: some of the lines are funny but others are much too obvious. The script is often preachy, particularly as the show wraps up. The music is powerful - more rock rather than the camp pop you might have assumed - and particularly so when the whole company sings. There are plenty of strengths but this show would benefit from further development.

The production, however, is accomplished. Isabel Hudson’s set design is wonderful, creating not just a tacky yet warm gay bar but somehow a sense of community too. A few audience members sit among the actors at tables on stage; some cast in the front row. 

Shaun Rennie is a very talented director, recognised for productions including Only Heaven Knows and Rent at the Hayes. Here, the action is quick and easy to follow (aside from when lyrics are lost in the terrible acoustics) and the scenes fit seamlessly into a whole.

Henry Brett, who plays the lead, Wes, has a beautiful voice. He captures a touching vulnerability and has a nonchalance that fits perfectly too. But at some moments he loses a sense of authenticity, perhaps challenged by his character’s lack of it as well.

Stephen Madsen, playing Wes’s love interest Patrick, is forceful and endearing. But it’s as part of the ensemble that the actors are at their best. No-one is weak and as a whole they are very strong (although Markesha McCoy stands out as the bar owner Henri - her voice is outstanding and she’s instantly likeable).

More and more off-Broadway plays and musicals are making their way here as independent theatre grows (helped also by the Mardi Gras festival). We are better for it. This is an excellent production of a show that needs more work. An enjoyable night in a very different world.

Peter Gotting

Photographer: John McCrae

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