Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The View Upstairs

Photo by  John McCare

Invisible Wall Productions and Sugary Rum Productions, in association with Hayes Theatre Company presents, THE VIEW UPSTAIRS, Book, Lyrics and Music by Max Vernon, at the Hayes Theatre, Greenknowe Ave, Kings Cross. 8 February - 11 March.

THE VIEW UPSTAIRS, ia a recent American Off-Broadway Musical with Book, Lyrics and Music, written by Max Vernon.

In a shadowy room we meet a shady Realtor (Martelle Hammer) winning a deal with a returning New Orleans youth, Wes (Henry Brett), who having moved from New York is planing to set up a fashion shop supported, presumably, by the wealth of his parents. Wes is a hip gay iPhone wearing modern media savant with all the eager and blunt needs of the capitalist American Dream pushing down his basic humanity in a giddy pursuit of fame-celebrity and a stunning BRAND. He is driven but could be described as 'shallow' - lacking, perhaps, 'the milk of human kindness'.

In his excitement at the step he has signed on for, he snorts some cocaine that trips him into an interlude where he 'awakes' to find himself in the space he has bought but in another time, that of 1973, in a hidden gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, decorated with all of its period taste, and culture heroes - that famous centre-fold naked image of Burt Reynolds, on the wall - and full of a group of men who have clandestinely come to this bar to find a 'kind of heaven', a respite, a safe space, where they can relax and unwind to be themselves, and enjoy the company of other men.

What Wes finds with the cross-section of customers that range from a religious minister, Richard/Rita-Mae (Thomas Campbell), to a Cuban Drag-Queen, Freddy/Aurora Whorealis (Ryan Gonzalez) and his supportive mother who makes the costumes, wig and make-up for her son, Inez (Martelle Hammer), a married man with two kids nursing a 'buckling' piano-man career, Buddy (Anthony Harkin), a misanthropic and bullied misfit, Dale (David Hooley), a honeyed older man of 'that' persuasion with a mellow history of experience which he is only too generous to dispense for the education of the crowd, Willie (Madison McKoy), served by the sympathetic, 'butchy' bar-keep Henri (Markesha McKoy), and, especially, Patrick (Stephen Madsen) an attractive rent-boy/world wise prostitute, in a place where community may be a description that surprises and educates the gay commercial go-getter who has only transacted relationships through the gadgetry of the App. Hashtag/swipe/photograph-snap! - no need for personal interaction/connection. Real people are 'confronting'.

This production, with a rambunctious delight of detail Directed by Shaun Rennie in a Set Design dripping with resourced period memories by Isabel Hudson and dressed extravagantly in what, I think, is the original Off-Broardway Costume Design by Anita Yavich, jumps out at you with tight Choreography from Cameron Mitchell, and a dazzling and meticulously prepared Lighting Design by Trent Suidgeest - the best of this Mardi Gras season of productions I have, so far, seen.

The show works best when the contrasting politics and life-styles of the gay man of the early 70's is laid beside the evolved 'horror' of what it has become in the world of Trump (and others) and the zeitgeist of "Money-celebrity-money" of 2018 - what the Mardi Gras play, THE HOMOSEXUALS, OR FAGGOTS, by Declan Greene, of last year, set in Sydney, satirised/ called-out, brilliantly. There is savage wit and stark contrast to be seen, heard and 'sniggered' at, between the decades of the time zones, and it could give a new salutary point-of-view for some of the younger in the audience to see where the tradition and community protest symbolised by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, this year celebrating 40 years of existence, began. A re-appraised understanding of what the spirit was that launched a protest march in the 70's, that could have landed the participants in jail or a psych ward for 'treatment/cure could be learnt here. For, the 70's were indeed a different time of the valuation of the need for human connection in a world that was afraid and violently re-active when 'the other' life paths showed themselves. The simple contrasted representation of the law through the appearance of two cops (Nick Errol) in this show, one of the 'Sam Rockwell' narrowness and scorching viciousness of the THREE BILLBOARDS character-kind contrasted to a more careful and reasonable man in 2018, is clear enough.

When the observation of the two value systems are the driving engine of the material this Musical has heft. Unfortunately, it becomes diluted with the American or Musical Theatre  or American Musical Theatre propensity for sentimental romance, which, sometimes, here, is troweled on in the writing and inevitably removes the spike and spunk of the other. Too, the Music recalling the disco/soft rock/glam of the period over the hour and forty-five minutes becomes repetitive and tiring - no matter the alert keeness of the Musical direction by Nicholas Griffin and his band, and the energy and 'beauty' of the singers' sounds.

The whole company give good value for money. The characters are written with an obvious brush-stroke and each has a song to tell us of their journey in a cliche manner. Despite that, Mr Rennie has coaxed performances of convinced 'truths' from most and elicits an electric tension in the play's dramatics. Henry Brett, in the lead as Wes, is especially arresting, with a balancing performance from Stephen Madsen, as Patrick, helps the 'heart-bleed' of the writing between the pair to exist without too much 'treacle'. Ryan Gonzalez is a treat, in and out of drag, as is Ms Hammer as feisty and 'tragic' mum, and who knew that Mr Campbell not only has the chops to be an award winning actor in stuff like Chekov's THREE SISTERS, but, also, has a glorious voice and fearless verve for the Musical Theatre genre.

I recommend THE VIEW UPSTAIRS if you like the musical form. This production matches the stylistic qualities of the Hayes Theatre best reputation. I, especially,  recommend THE VIEW UPSTAIRS for its educating politics - the old can enjoy the nostalgia, the young can learn of some of their 'tribal' history.

N.B. The play is based on an historical event, of a fire in the UPSTAIRS LOUNGE - a city bar in New Orleans, in 1973. 32 bodies were found in the debris. The official report for this mass murder was, officially, 'undetermined'. It was the worst crime of that kind until the Orlando Pulse night club shooting in 2016, when 49 people died. Perhaps, times are not too different, eh? Now, there may be a lesson for the necessity for vigilance.

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