Just as Sheffield’s Park Hill estate can be seen as ambitious, iconic, important as well as unpleasant, impractical, and the quintessence of neglect and decay all at the same time, Richard Hawley and Chris Bush’s musical is also more than just one thing. Hawley’s score is majestic. The vocals of its leading performers are flawless and powerful. The production’s ambition and grandeur of staging rightly deserve to be a source of national pride at our National Theatre. But, particularly in the first act, there are aspects of Chris Bush’s script and character drawing that, unfortunately, are clunky and clichéd – placing unnecessary limits on the full magnificence of this mighty work.
Three sets of occupants – each introduced as they move into the same flat on the estate, starting in 1960, 1989 and 2015 respectively – dramatise rapidly how the personal will always be political whether anyone, including themselves, notices or not.
Standing at the Sky’s Edge is kitchen sink drama made massive. In 1989, the fourteenth year of Thatcher’s premiership, we encounter three Liberian refugees who are patronised by the council’s tenancy agent about how a sink works and urged always to lock and bolt the door to keep ‘bad men out’. Schoolgirl Joy (Faith Omole) is terrified about the plight of her parents, who may or may not have made it to Guinea, and does not want to be in this cold, wet, smelly place (home and country) with extended family. Nineteen years earlier, the same dwelling is occupied by newlywed Rose (Rachael Wooding) and her steel foreman husband, Harry (Robert Lonsdale). Rose marvels at her garbage disposal and lilts around the kitchen in a picture of perfect, contrived – and utterly stereotypical – working-class bliss. In 2015, middle-class Poppy (Alex Young) takes ownership of the gentrified dwelling, having moved north from London as she sets herself up for a new life and the playwright sets up easy laughs as the character awaits an Ocado order and marvels at the availability of fresh turmeric root in the local market. I cavil over the set-up because this play deserves to be an undisputed tour de force and so nearly reaches it – save for the first twenty or so minutes of dialogue that comes across like someone put a yet untitled melodrama project into Chat.GBT and asked it to write it in the alternating voices of Ken Loach and Richard Curtis. The exposition needed for the play’s dramatic structure to progress is presented in such a banal and romanticised way that it potentially derails the layered emotions – hopeful, raging, sorrowful, feverishly urgent – which loom large in Hawley’s music and finally find a spoken voice in the second act. However, the climax that ends the first act is spectacular and energetic in the way the biggest numbers of Hair were at its premiere: all vestiges of thinness explode into a purely visceral experience with ‘There’s a Storm A-Comin’’ bringing down the house.
In the second act, the clocks indicate the years are moving forward and, with the voice of Margaret Thatcher occasionally heard on the radio, we all know what’s coming. The masculine pride embodied by Harry’s being the ‘youngest ever foreman’ turns into all-consuming humiliation and rejection of his own utility whilst his wife works retail and tries to boost his spirits by arranging a supermarket job offer for him. Harry’s identity and pride are casualties of the onward march of neo-liberalism and the fire in his belly that once led the union is now extinguished by whiskey until he’s unbearable and indeed useless to the family. It is just before his annihilation that Bush writes some her finest lines and gives them to Harry. She grabs by the throat the power-preserving tactic of systematically reducing people’s expectations as Harry laments, ‘Gratitude blinds you, to thank your lucky stars, to doff your caps…but did we ask why we were in the slums in the first place? … You strike to say, “I’m still here. I still matter. You will see me.” No one sees us up here we were left to rot.’
The trauma, heartbreak, and aborted or stillborn dreams of generations reverberate amongst the brutal, brutalist space. Literal and figurative wrecking balls smash through homes and lives. Some survive, some don’t. As a playwright of ideas, Bush starts to shine when she gives Connie, (Bobbie Little) who serves as narrator for much of the play, the quip that there will not be ‘a scratch-card ex machina’ ending. Instead, we are left with a final meditation: ‘It’s the hope that kills you but also what keeps you alive,’ to top off one outstanding musical number after another.
Standing at the Sky’s Edge may occasionally veer into contrivance in its spoken moments, but it’s a feast of musical talent. Faith Omole’s voice is worth the ticket price alone with Maimuna Memon (playing Nikki) coming a close second within an entire cast of titanic vocalists. The band, led by John Rutledge, and choreography by Lynne Page, deliver everything you’d expect of Richard Hawley. Imperfect but impactful: you’ll want to hear the music again and talk about it.
Review by Mary Beer
A castle built of streets in the sky.
Poppy wants to escape her old life in London. Joy and Jimmy want to spend the rest of their lives together. Rose and Harry want the new life they’ve been promised.
A love letter to Sheffield and a history of modern Britain told through the stories of one iconic estate, Standing at the Sky’s Edge charts the hopes and dreams of three generations over the course of six tumultuous decades.
Set to the irresistible songs of legendary Sheffield singer-songwriter Richard Hawley, it is a heartfelt exploration of the power of community and what it is we call home.
Darragh Cowley – Workman 1 / Gary / Nigel / US Jimmy/Teen
Ahmed Hamad – Workman 3 / Kevin / Max / Dance Captain / US George
Sèverine Howell-Meri – Justine / US Connie/Nikki
Samuel Jordan – Jimmy
Bobbie Little – Connie
Robert Lonsdale – Harry
David McKechnie – Workman 2 / US Charles/Trev/Seb/Markus
Maimuna Memon – Nikki
Rachel Louise Miller – Woman 1 / Cathy / US Rose/Poppy/Vivienne
Baker Mukasa – George
Alastair Natkiel – Marcus / Housing Officer / US Harry
Faith Omole – Joy
Adam Price – Charles / Trev / Seb
Consuela Rolle – Jenny / US Joy / Grace
Nicola Sloane – Vivienne / Karen
Jake Small – Teen / US Gary / Nigel / Gary / Max
Deborah Tracey – Grace / Alice
Rachel Wooding – Rose
Alex Young – Poppy
Standing at the Sky’s Edge
Until 25 March 2023