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Standing at the Sky’s Edge

  • Theatre, Musicals
  • Gillian Lynne Theatre, Covent Garden
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Standing at the Sky’s Edge, Gillian Lynne Theatre, 2024
Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Richard Hawley and Chris Bush’s monumental musical love letter to a Sheffield estate is unlike anything else in the West End

I was blown away by the emotional power of this show, about three generations of incomers in Sheffield’s iconic – and infamous – brutalist housing estate, Park Hill. It’s a stunning achievement, which takes the popular but very different elements of retro pop music, agitprop and soap opera, melts them in the crucible of 50 years of social trauma and forges something potent, gorgeous and unlike any big-ticket musical I’ve seen before. 

‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’ has deeply local foundations. It's based on local songwriter Richard Hawley's music. And it was made in Sheffield, at the Crucible Theatre, with meticulous care and attention from that theatre’s creative team. It’s been rightly garlanded with praise and awards already. But its West End transfer makes it clear that this singular show can speak beyond its own backyard. It is part kitchen sink musical, and part state-of-the-nation soap. It documents poverty, migration, hard graft, the painful decline of industry and working-class male pride, the double-edged hope offered by regeneration, the fragile joys of love in  ‘found families’ – not exactly ‘jazz hands’ themes, but vividly relatable and, more importantly, shared by communities. They deserve to be sung just as loudly as the more familiar stories of triumphant individuals expressing themselves, which tend to leave all this stuff behind. 

What makes this an instant classic is the Crucible's outstanding production, a true ensemble achievement. It is the right way to approach a community-based story. Divided into three timelines, in the ’60s we see optimistic Harry, carrying his bride Rose over the threshold; in the rundown ’80s refugee Joy hiding behind a locked door; in the present, posh incomer Poppy is trying to persuade her hilariously awful parents that she’s bought into a design icon. All of them struggle with the same scary sink unit, and slap their feelings into the same walls and floors. 

Director Robert Hastie and choreographer Lynn Page meticulously, brilliantly layer their lives and times into a single shared space. Their social differences and emotional affinities are emotionally sedimented together through deeply affecting snatches of song and dance, rooted in everyday joys and sorrows, and everyday moves, but elevated to a pitch where you're constantly on the edge of tears. The Crucible team has created a total theatrical world, impressively scaffolded by its light and sound designers (Ben Stone, Mark Hendersen and Bobby Aitken) - no mean feat given that they had to recreate a towering 14-storey new brutalist castle famous for its concrete ‘streets in the sky’. It's intimate and epic. The cast of 30-odd flow up and around an austere kitchen-diner framed by upper and lower walkways, the highs and lows of their lives illuminated by brutal spotlights, tender lamplights and neon striplights. In the show’s most glorious moments the whole chorus is bathed in Technicolor sunrises on the balconies, a democratic source of joy that the actual Park Hill designers built in for every resident. 

Chris Bush’s book does a good job, bringing some laughs to lighten the heavy industrial themes. There are a couple of bum notes (would striking ’80s workers complain about ‘wanting to be seen’?), and I found the wrap-up rushed and sentimental. But it’s still much stronger than your average jukebox musical, where writers often end up building a mad Frankenstein story out of random scavenged phrases and Fernandos that they find in the lyrics. This show rightly treats local songwriter and sometime Pulp guitarist Richard Hawley’s back catalogue as mood music. Which is not to downplay it at all: it has been souped up massively, adding more urgency and tenderness, so its emotional ripples hit ten on the Richter scale, repeatedly.

Music is the beating heart here. Instead of being hidden in a pit, the band – heavy on strings and snarling electric guitar – is nestled into the central wall of the set. Hawley’s gentle, retro solo ballads for the working man get supercharged with astonishing female performances and poignant arrangements for many voices. It’s not often that an orchestrator gets a shoutout but Tom Deering and the show’s musical director Alex Beeching deserve it: they have picked up concrete slabs and made them fly. The texture is both intimate and electric. Female leads Rachael Wooding, Laura Pitt-Pulford and Elizabeth Ayodele and especially Lauryn Redding will break your heart with lungs of steel. 

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve heard of Hawley or are a fan already. What most people enjoy about music is the way it makes them feel. And ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’ has all the feels – joy, lust, fear, sadness, despair, are crafted into an emotional edifice which stands nearly as tall as the place that inspired it.

Written by
Caroline McGinn


Gillian Lynne Theatre
Drury Lane (corner of Parker Street)
View Website
Tube: Covent Garden/Holborn
£20-£134.50. Runs 2hr 50min

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