This review is from the National Theatre in March 2023. ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’ transfers to the Gillian Lynne Theatre in February 2024.
Finally transferring down from its native Sheffield after literally years of pandemic-related delays, ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’ is a truly singular musical. It marries playwright Chris Bush’s epic story about three eventually interconnected generations of newcomers to the Steel City’s iconic brutalist Park Hill estate to the retro-pop of local musician Richard Hawley, specifically his 2012 album of the same name, plus various other tunes from his back catalogue.
Robert Hastie’s production – which received ecstatic reviews in Sheffield, twice – feels both bracingly different and agreeably familiar. I’m not usually the biggest fan of Hawley’s nostalgic retro-pop, and at times his soft-focussed ‘50s-style ballads feel like an odd for a trio of stories entirely set after the era the music harks back to. But the heavier songs off the titular album are a better fit: the awesome Zeppelin swagger of the title track is like nothing I’ve heard in a musical before, and it intersects with the action perfectly, capturing the stormy crisis points being faced by the characters at that point.
If Hawley’s record was evocative of Park Hill and the Skye Edge area of Sheffield without actually having a true narrative, it’s Bush’s job to make something much more tangible. Her book picks on a trio of points in the estate’s history. We see young couple Rose and Harry moving into the just finished Park Hill in the late ‘60s. He’s about to become the youngest foreman in the history of the Steel City, and is concerned – too concerned – that she doesn’t feels she needs to get a job, because he should be able to provide. In 1989, Joy (Faith Omole) arrives in the unfamiliar city with her strict aunt, fleeing civil war in Liberia, the flats now rough and dangerous. And in roughly the present we meet Poppy (Alex Young), a posh, jaded southerner fleeing personal problems in London, part of a new wave of gentrifiers.
Bush has a great knack for mixing rabble-rousing populism with more astringent social commentary. There is, undeniably a lot of bellicose Sheffield patriotism, slagging off London, slagging off Leeds, all that good stuff (actually I think I gave a muffled yelp of fury at the Leeds diss, but in the cold light of day it was pretty funny).
There’s more to it than that, though, and Bush gradually builds up a more complicated picture: a city that went into decline not just because of the closure of its steel mills, but because of men who struggled to get over the loss of their old roles; salt of the earth residents of the flats who turned a blind eye to social cleansing that occurred prior to gentrification.
I have to say that I didn’t actively love it: Bush is good on themes but there are points here where her character writing tends towards the soapy and melodramatic. While you could reasonably argue that that’s what you want from a musical, I found some of the plot twists a bit crass. I don’t want to spoiler, but there are a couple of abrupt deaths that felt pretty cheap and emotionally manipulative.
Still, it’s a three-hour musical about the social ebb and flow of an iconic brutalist estate – and Britain itself – over half a century, set to music that is, at its best, both lovelorn and elemental. There’s a stirring, string-heavy live band, and dreamy ensemble choreographic sequences from Lynne Page. It manages to be both widescreen and kitchen sink, of the theatre and of the estate. It’s a hugely admirable achievement, and if it left me personally a bit cold – and I’m very possibly the only one! – I couldn’t help but be impressed.