Book: Chris Bush
Music and Lyrics: Richard Hawley
Director: Robert Hastie
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
Richard Hawley is as Sheffield as Henderson’s Relish – South Yorkshire’s gauntlet to Lea & Perrins – and he has mined the landscape of the city throughout his musical career, from the romantic crooning of ‘Coles Corner’ to the more strident strains of ‘Truelove’s Gutter’.
Hawley’s collaboration with Chris Bush and Robert Hastie riffs on the stories of those whose lives were transformed by the social housing boom of the early sixties, and the successive generations which supplanted those pioneers. The focus is the Corbusier inspired brutalist concrete deck-access flats of the Park Hill Estate, which still looms over Sheffield railway station.
The state of health of the building and the wider society is reflected in the lives of those who take up residence in the same surroundings. Steelworker Harry dreams of starting a family in the new apartment; his wife gapes at the kitchen sink waste disposal unit. A generation on, Liberian orphan Joy sees her new home as both a refuge and a prison, as she strives for her own freedom amidst the inner-city brutality of a sink estate. Rescued by commercial entrepreneurism, the former social homes prove attractive to yuppies and hipsters forging a post-industrial future for the city.
The history of the Park Hill estate may provide the backdrop for this drama, but its energy derives from the stories of the three families which occupy the same flat over a period of nearly 70 years, the interactions between them, their individual histories, and the emotional power of Richard Hawley’s music. In interweaving these narratives, writer Chris Bush has ensured that they mirror and reflect one another. Hawley’s catalogue contains more than enough emotional heft to power the musical journey, and the cast and band do a stellar job in bringing it all to life.
Without this synchronicity, this would be a badly designed jukebox musical. It isn’t.
The set is monumental. It has to be, to convey the brutalism of the architecture which is the skeleton for all that follows. A stage level minimalist interior serves as a credible domestic setting from 1960 to 2019. Above it, a gallery level provides a panorama balcony, and a performance space for the live band, led by Musical Director Will Stuart. Lighting is fluid and effective, and always follows the mood music of the drama. Considering the time span of the piece, those responsible for set, props and costumes managed the transitions with great aplomb.
This is a play with music rather than musical theatre, and it, therefore, presents its own challenges for the performers. Not least the fact that Richard Hawley’s delivery of his own material is so distinctive. The greater, therefore, is the credit to arranger Tom Deering, and all those cast members who made Hawley’s songs sit entirely comfortably at home in this show. Unfairly, Alex Young as Poppy and Maimuna Memon as Nikki have to be singled out for their total ownership of the songs they were gifted. But everyone paid their dues.
There are so many elements which work together happily in this piece, but there is one that seems unnecessary. There is a large cast, including many support artists drawn from Sheffield People’s Theatre. They play a vital role in creating the social atmosphere of the estate, as bag ladies, feral youths, and assorted unsavoury types. This mass attack works brilliantly in the riot scene, accompanied by sirens and thrash metal guitar music. But there are other points where crisscrossing the stage with trolleys, bikes and prams to create a mash-up of social life on the estate distracts from the central narrative.
This is a confluence of riches and deserves to be celebrated. It obviously will be in Sheffield where every local joke was devoured, the colloquialisms were relished, and the chip on the Sheffield shoulder was carried with pride. The emotional stories of the characters have universal relevance and have no boundaries. Richard Hawley’s music has an audience well beyond South Yorkshire. Park Hill also has a resonance for many city regeneration projects. This show deserves a broader audience, but the Sheffield anchor, glorious though it is, may prevent it from translating to a broader geography. The Full Monty gives the lie to such a notion, but if this remained no more than a local show for local people, that would be a loss.
Runs until 6 April 2019 | Image: Johan Persson.