Saturday 16 March 2024

Standing at the Sky's Edge

 Gillian Lynne, London

2nd March, 2024

You should see where I am now

On your next visit to Sheffield’s Crucible, turn around upon leaving the station and marvel at the Park Hill estate. Designed as social housing, Park Hill sits on the hill overlooking the city. Its concrete brutalist structure, its yellow and orange window panels and its notorious message of love graffitied onto a walkway dominate the sky. The Park Hill estate also dominates the stage in Chris Bush and Richard Hawley’s musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge (2019) which, following two runs at the Crucible, a run at the National and picking up the Olivier Award for Best New Musical, has triumphantly made its way into the West End. Of course, Bush is no stranger to triumphs when it comes to writing about Sheffield. Her 2022 play Rock/Paper/Scissors was our highlight of the year and similarly saw a perfect coming together of theatrical space with dramatised place. Likewise, Hawley’s work has long been influenced by Sheffield so it’s no surprise that this collaboration works so well. Set in one of Park Hill’s flats, Standing at the Sky’s Edge follows three of its occupying families across six decades. A love letter to Sheffield and its people without romanticising the past, Bush and Hawley’s writing is full of heart without succumbing to easy sentiment. Sheffield is more than just its setting: it’s the musical’s DNA, its source of conflict and its beating heart.

It’s 1960 and Rose (Rachael Wooding) and Harry (Joel Harper-Jackson) have just moved in to the newly built estate. Gratitude is their overriding feeling. Practically from a slum, they’re now in awe at the amount of space, the views of the city, and the waste disposal unit. The ‘streets in the sky’ social experiment is a utopia to them. It’s also 1989 and, having escaped an impending war in Liberia, Joy (Elizabeth Ayodele) and her aunt and uncle are the flat’s next tenants. ‘Lock the door’, the estate agent tells them before hurrying off from an estate which is now rife with crime, anti-social behaviour and falling into disrepair. It’s also 2015 and Poppy (Laura Pitt-Pulford) has moved into the flat, which is newly renovated as part of a regeneration project that’s gentrified the area. Bush cleverly intertwines and overlaps the three time settings in Robert Hastie’s production which impressively hits every beat of the story with utter clarity. In one scene, characters are eating a meal in 1960, 1989 and 2015, all bonding over Henderson’s Relish and sat around the same table (as often in drama, food is a great marker of place and social cohesion). Once again, I’m in awe at Bush’s intricate plotting and ability to weave multiple stories in a complex yet seemingly simple way. Her play is one of ambitious scope and scale and yet also mines the depths of characters.

We follow each timeline over the years through personal and social upheaval: strikes, unemployment, general elections, heartache, death. But despite disappointment after disappointment after disappointment, it’s the characters’ resilience which shines through. For instance, in the contemporary setting, Poppy has uprooted herself from her home in an attempt to make a new one. You can’t fault her effort at getting stuck in, inviting colleagues around for dinner, hosting parties and leafleting to get to know her new neighbours (where she has any). Her parents wonder why she is doing this, seeing it as a self-induced exile. When her ex-fiancée Nikki turns up to try to win her back (a great performance from Lauryn Redding), she questions whether Poppy’s attempts to bed in are really what she wants, however genuine they seem. Poppy is more than one character trait, such are the depths of Bush’s characters, both eschewing and embracing any ‘Richard Curtis bullshit’. Through all this, Bush explores the push and pull of home and what it means to belong. Like in Rock/Paper/Scissors, characters compellingly advocate for progress, shunning nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. When Nikki implies Poppy’s taking the home of a person that needs it, Connie (Joy’s daughter from the middle time setting) reminds her that ‘no one cared about this place until the posh prices came along… and that is progress’. Knock it down, do it up, move on – new houses and new residents will come along. For Connie, a ‘home is a series of boxes that stops the rain coming in’. For others, however, home is a part of who you are; some even hang around the estate like ghosts.

Hawley’s score is a soundtrack of mostly pre-existing songs arranged and orchestrated by Tom Deering, who translates them effortlessly to the stage. I found it was reminiscent of Bob Dylan and Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country. Rather than driving the narrative, the songs set the mood of the piece. The searing ‘After the Rain’ is beautifully filled with longing as performed by Wooding.There's A Storm A-Comin'’ is mixed with Thatcher’s ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony’ speech, a rock anthem for the disharmony that was brought to many in the city and marked a change for the estate. And ‘Don't Get Hung Up in Your Soul’ is a soulful ballad sung by Connie (Mel Lowe) to her younger self.

Ben Stones’ set impressively recreates the concrete brutalist balconies and geometric designs of the real estate, richly complemented by Mark Henderson’s lighting. Lynne Page’s choreography brings the stairwells and walkways of the estate to life. Watching the show, there is a strong connection to the city and its people. And whilst it is intrinsically Sheffield-centric, it also prompted in me a proud connection with my own home city. Place at a local level is an important part of one’s identity and it’s great to see that explored on stage – on local, national and commercial stages. Last week, Hastie announced he will be stepping down as Artistic Director of Sheffield’s Crucible next year. This show is just one of several acclaimed productions over the past eight years, some of which have had a local focus but a wide reach. Standing at the Sky’s Edge is a layered work which has earnt its accolades. Profound, uplifting, original, inspiring theatre!

Standing at the Sky’s Edge is playing at the Gillian Lynne Theatre. For further information please visit

Laura Pitt-Pulford, Elizabeth Ayodele and Rachael Wooding in Standing at the Sky's Edge. Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

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