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Rainbow interpretations

Posted on July 30, 2019

The LGBT+ movement still has plenty of battles to fight, but finding representation in the theatre is not one of them. The Southbank Centre has launched a season of “queer cabaret, drag kings and queens, and DJ collectives” that runs through the summer, featuring dance, comedy, films, happenings and exhibitions, many of them free, from more than 30 artists exploring the rainbow interpretations of sexual identity. Dance Umbrella in October will include The Big Pink Vogue Ball and a voguing workshop, and Jean Paul Gaultier’s Fashion Freak Show is packing the Queen Elizabeth Hall (QEH) right now.

A zippy trip through the feisty designer’s life and success, wildly dressed, decade by decade, in his signature mix of sequins, feathers, conical bras and provocative streetwear, it proudly celebrates, as Gaultier himself says, “different kinds of beauty, androgyny, different people from different races, all the things that have been in my collections”. Act I opens with “the first transsexual bear in history.” Act II opens, in 1981, with an upbeat alert to Aids; banners cry Protect Yourself, and the cast tosses condoms to the viewers like party favours.

The original production, which I saw at the Folies Bergère in Paris (see Dancing Times, March 2019), loses a little at the QEH, where the unforgiving stage flattens the audacious extravaganza by robbing it of space, and I missed the runway that thrust the pouting models right into the audience. None of that detracts, however, from the gorgeous bodies, the seductive choreography and a theatrical concept that throws sexual politics, quite literally, in your face.

The cast of The View Upstairs. Photograph by Darren Bell.

The View Upstairs at the Soho Theatre examines social history more soberly by introducing Wes, an ambitious gay man of today, to the tragedy of an actual arson attack in 1973 that killed 32 people in the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans. Having decided to launch his fashion career from that abandoned space, the cool New Yorker finds himself exchanging truths with the ghosts who inhabit it. By 2019, he tells them, a plague will have killed thousands of men just like them but thousands more will marry and live together openly. In 1973, they tell him, homosexuals had to hide and lie to protect themselves; to them, his mobile phone looks like surveillance equipment and cruising online sounds like visiting a bathhouse.

Written by Max Vernon and initially produced Off-Broadway in 2017, this small-scale musical emerges awkwardly from its fascinating premise. The songs flow like stock expressions from stock characters, including the married man whose wife doesn’t know his secret, the closeted drag queen, the abused loner, the ageing dancer, the naive community worker, the bitter drunk. Fabian Aloise’s choreography revives the glam-rock moves of the 1970s and adds punch to a rhythmic prayer meeting. Convincing fights break out, and heartfelt emotions soothe dangerous confrontations.

In the programme, the director, Jonathan O’Boyle, reminds viewers that equal rights still elude LGBT+ people 50 years after Stonewall began a revolution to secure them. Though I found the show theatrically predictable and sentimental, it succeeds as a sincere political statement and a call to action. Wes may dream of a triumphant future – “Rich people run the world,” he declares, “and when they buy my clothes they give me power” – but Gaultier himself would warn that gender-fluid clothing can’t eradicate intolerance.

Pictured: From left to right, Tyrone Huntley as Wes, Joseph Prouse as Richard, Cedric Neal as Willie, Declan Bennett as Dale and John Partridge as Buddy in The View UpStairs. Photograph by Darren Bell.

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at http://barbaranewmandance.net

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