Head upstairs at Whitechapel Art Gallery (before the exhibition closes on 25th August 2019, that is) and you’ll find a small, tucked-away room memorialising lost queer spaces. Each one gets a glass case full of photos, flyers, badges, and planning documents that mark their struggle with rising rents and nimby-ish councils. It’s intriguing and worthwhile but still oddly dry, blotting out the sweat and tears and beer and more illicit fluids that pumped through these clubs and bars. The stains are just a fraction of the picture. If you want to know what a space means to a community, you need to ask them.
The View Upstairs is a gorgeously intimate queer musical that does just that. It begins with a young fashion influencer (played by Tyrone Huntley) buying a derelict patch of his native New Orleans to house his new clothing brand in. But this room isn’t the blank canvas he dreamt of. It’s got ghosts, inhabitants of a lost gay bar from forty-odd years ago, and they tell their stories in a pageant of squelchy ’70s dance tunes, drag numbers, and tender piano ballads.
Its composer and writer Max Vernon was directly inspired by the little-known arson attack on gay bar UpStairs Lounge in 1973, where 32 people died. As uncovered by researcher Jim Down, funeral homes refused to accept their bodies, churches denied requests to hold memorial services, and officialdom’s non-existent rescue efforts had to be supplemented by the work of gay men.
Vernon’s musical doesn’t feel weighed down by this context: like Come From Away, it’s a piece that finds joy on the edges of unimaginable tragedy, the pain-at-a-distance making its fragile community’s pleasures feel more urgent and real. This room is more than a bar. It’s a sanctuary from the viciously homophobic streets outside. It’s also a literal church, where a gay reverend gathers worshippers round the piano for queer services. And it’s a refuge for homeless and outcast men, too: although as the narrative progresses, its welcome is shown to have limits. Declan Bennett plays Dale, a sex worker who’s sleeping rough; he’s in love with Puerto Rican drag queen Freddy (Garry Lee), but his desperate yearning for affection gets ignored, even by warm Inez, who mothers both Freddy and the whole community.
Queer spaces are different now, and that’s hammered home through the presence of man-from-the-future Wes. Tyrone Huntley bursts with life and YouTube-ready self-confidence as he squares up to a bullying police officer, or derides closeted piano-player Buddy (John Partridge). His perma-shock at the way things used to be done is played for laughs; he’s horrified by Dale’s crude overtures in the bathroom, and can’t imagine sleeping with a guy unless he’s seen his dick pics first. Wes’s initial disdain for the decor, periodically-gropy clientele and their bizarre-seeming rituals casts him as one of the ‘kids these days’, the ones who older members of the LGBTQ+ community often blame for declining queer nightlife. But various studies show that in London at least, venues like (most recently) XXL aren’t closing for lack of fresh blood: it’s because properties have become investments, and newly-regenerated inner cities are the target for residential developments whose moneyed inhabitants don’t want a gay bar spilling its messy contents onto the streets at 4am. Perhaps The View Upstairs plays on queer intragenerational divides a little too hard, at the expense of bigger societal questions.
Or perhaps it’s teasing, however bluntly, at something often left unsaid. A couple of weeks ago, my girlfriend and I made a mini-pilgrimage to Manchester’s Gay Village, fighting my way down streets packed with Saturday night crowds to get to Vanilla, a tiny two-story lesbian bar dominated by pool table (downstairs) and endlessly busy toilets (upstairs). It was terrible and great at the same time; sticky drinks, Janelle Monae videos on loop, such cliquiness, so much drama. I loved it – for a few hours – but left feeling on some level relieved that it wasn’t my lifeline, my ‘in’ to a queer community that I couldn’t access any other way.
The dry academese of ‘queering spaces’, and accompanying cosy nostalgia for lost gay bars, sometimes cloaks more uncomfortable realities. Stepping inside a gay bar isn’t always a triumphant homecoming. XXL banned femme men, and often turned away men of colour. Queer communities can so easily atomise along lines of age and gender presentation and ethnicity and class, and it takes sustained effort to create a space that’s genuinely welcoming to the people who need it most.
The View UpStairs shows, without sentimentality, what it’s like to live as a queer person in when you can only be yourself in a handful of fraught, hidden-away spaces, and the pressures that come with that. Straight-acting Buddy and flamboyant Freddie and struggling Dale are archetypes, yes, but they’re also men who wouldn’t stay together in one small room unless they had to. And the one of them who needs this bar most is the first to be excluded from it.
Lee Newby’s set design creates a totally naturalistic gay bar, complete with framed portraits of screen icons on the walls, and patterned carpet on its floors; it feels both real and claustrophobic, especially with a building soundtrack of shouts and sirens from the streets beyond. And it fits perfectly in Soho Theatre’s underused main space, surrounded by gay pubs and clubs, and sitting above a bar that’s an unofficial gathering place for a more complacent 21st century kind of queer type. It’s a comfortable space to poke at uncomfortable truths; about what we do to make the discrimination-free dream of ‘community’ a reality, and about what responsibilities come with nostalgia.
The View UpStairs is on at Soho Theatre until 24th August. More info and tickets here.