Music and Lyrics: Richard Hawley
Book: Chris Bush
Director: Robert Hastie
The setting is undeniably Sheffield, but the specificity of the particular location could be so many other places. A brutalist piece of mass social housing offers promises of a new life to local families in the 1960s, before decades of neglect transform the Utopian idyll into a festering carbuncle. It still provides shelter for those who need it, but it’s not until gentrification many years later that the problems are rectified. The building becomes well-maintained enough to fulfil its original purpose – but only when the people for whom it was originally constructed are moved aside in favour of outsiders with money.
In Richard Hawley and Chris Bush’s Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which originated at Sheffield Theatres, the location is the city’s Park Hill estate, and across three different timelines follows successive generations of residents in just one of the buildings’ flats. In 1960, Rose and Harry (Rachael Wooding and Robert Lonsdale) enter as young marrieds; in 1989, Joy (Faith Omole) and her family are escaping civil war in Liberia; in 2015, Alex Young’s Poppy is starting a new life after escaping a toxic relationship in London, buying the refurbished flat in what is now a Grade II* listed building.
Large digital clocks initially delineate the time periods. However, Ben Stones’ costume designs and Lynne Page’s choreography maintain clarity even when people from all three time periods inhabit the same spaces.
And that set is a genuine star of the piece. Its multi-tiered concrete aesthetic feels at home within the space of Denys Lasdun’s brutalist National Theatre – itself a building that has taken many decades for its custodians to work out how to best use and maintain it. The flat shared by all the families is picked out in low, underlit relief, while the orchestra looms over from a first-floor parapet.
This high level is often used as a stage from which singers can belt out rousing numbers, although Hawley’s work is best when it comes from the massed ensemble performing together. Like much of the best British rock and pop, the sound has a timeless quality to it, grabbing influences from all decades and building up in contemporary harmony.
The first act’s biggest number, There’s a Storm a-Comin’, starts with a Rodgers and Hammerstein-like sense of expansive foreboding, before escalating into a full-out rock number with electric guitar solos. Earlier, Tonight the Streets are Ours (led by Baker Mukasa as Joy’s cousin George) reaches the play’s apex of happiness as all three households settle into their new life.
Bush’s book explores the differences between each generation deftly: even when the brush strokes are large enough to exposit information quickly, they are administered so lightly that the characters, and their actors, make them seem effortless. Samuel Jordan’s Jimmy is a particular strength, his palpable chemistry with Omole’s Joy becoming the centre of a show with many hearts.
As the connections between the three time periods reveal themselves, some of the political shifts that affected the whole country are refracted through a particularly Sheffield lens. The rise of Thatcherism in one timeline is juxtaposed against Neil Kinnock’s notoriously cringeworthy “We’re all right” 1992 rally in the city – while in Poppy’s era, she becomes a fan of the Lib Dem’s Nick Clegg. But all of these wider movements serve to focus on the changing lives of the estate’s inhabitants, always bringing it down to the personal.
And that’s the true success of Standing at the Sky’s Edge. It’s everywhere, it’s all of us. But it is undeniably, indelibly, Sheffield. A city loved by its people – and if this superb musical is anything to go by, with very good reason. Park Hill may be brutalist, all sharp lines and minimalist functionalism – but Richard Hawley and Chris Bush’s work shows that even concrete has a heart of gold.
Continues until 25 March 2023