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Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the Gillian Lynne Theatre

The National Theatre’s brutalist architecture made it an appropriate London home for the previous incarnation of Standing at the Sky’s Edge. Set in the Park Hill housing estate in Sheffield, it was effectively a show in a brutalist Grade II* listed building set in another Grade II* listed building. The Gillian Lynne Theatre isn’t listed but it’s brutalist nonetheless, adding an added atmospheric layer to a show that already relies on its physical environment to set its gritty tone.

Rachael Wooding as Rose in Standing at the Sky's Edge in the West End. Credit Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.
Rachael Wooding as Rose in Standing at the Sky’s Edge in the West End. Credit Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.

A Sheffield story that premiered in Sheffield (or, for those of us old enough to remember sets of cutlery that were branded thus, ‘Made in Sheffield’), I saw the show at the Crucible Theatre (yes, the one where the World Snooker Championship takes place) – and given the show’s product placement of Henderson’s Relish in the first act, it’s worth pointing out that Henderson’s Relish was not one of the condiments available in the restaurant at Travelodge Sheffield Central. Fair play, then, to the merchandise stand at the Gillian Lynne Theatre.

Anyway, the production has been jazzed up for the West End. Mark Henderson’s lighting design caught me by surprise in quite how meticulous it was (perhaps I was paying more attention to the triple narrative the first time I saw the show). Bobby Aitken’s sound design is impeccable, maintaining a good balance between the band, led ably by Alex Beetschen, and the vocals of the large cast.

The show is not without its detractors, who point out that it’s not immediately obvious quite how the musical numbers (Richard Hawley) are, especially in the first half, directly related to the storylines. Further, because the set (Ben Stones) doesn’t substantially change throughout the performance, the three generations of tenants staying in the same flat makes things confusing, even if it is patently obvious they are not doing so at the same time. ‘For Your Lover Give Some Time’, in the second half, works very well, used to further different stories within the same song.

For my part, my only criticism is that the stage looks, from time to time, busy for the sake of busyness, with the ensemble dancing to certain musical numbers. I offer no disapproval of Lynne Page’s choreography, which was often very pleasant to witness, but I’m not sure what, for example, having certain members of the company at one point dancing in the centre aisle in the stalls was really meant to achieve.

It’s a longitudinal story, covering six decades from 1960 to 2020 (well, New Year’s Eve 2019, such that we are mercifully spared anything about public health restrictions and all that). If ‘Tonight The Streets Are Ours’, to borrow the title of one of the songs, it’s not a sentiment shared by schoolgirl Joy (Elizabeth Ayodele), who feels her aunt Grace (Sharlene Hector) is caging her into a pseudo-prison as she is not permitted to leave the flat (or ‘split-level duplex’, as Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Poppy puts it) after hours. But then they were told by a housing officer (Alastair Natkiel) to keep their front door “locked and bolted” to prevent “bad men” from causing them harm.

Admittedly, it’s a show that comes with stereotypes. Harry (Joel Harper-Jackson) starts his career in the Sixties as a coal miner who works his way up the ranks until Thatcherism comes along and he finds himself without a job. Poppy, moving into the flat in 2015, comes from a well-to-do family in London, her dad (Adam Price) appreciating the Park Hill estate’s brutalism, even being impressed by it, and her mum (Nicola Sloane) rather less so. Marcus (also Natkiel), not a stereotype, gets, in my humble opinion, one of the best punchlines in the show. “Who needs Ocado?” Poppy asks, and Marcus’ reply is just perfect: “No one, fundamentally.

Chris Bush’s book has plenty of playful humour. It was interesting to observe the press night audience’s reaction to Poppy talking, with a hint of sarcasm, about the joys of becoming a freelancer after being made redundant from her salaried job. (According to Freelancers Make Theatre Work, there are at least 200,000 self-employed and freelance workers who comprise about 70 percent of the UK theatre workforce.) I take it that it’s not as straightforward as Poppy made it sound.

There are plenty of excellent singing voices, although if I had to pick a standout, I’d go for Lauryn Redding as Nikki, whose passion in ‘Open Up Your Door’ gloriously filled the auditorium. Poppy’s final scene observation about “Richard Curtis bullsh*t” may not have amused everyone, but it was indicative of the play’s self-awareness – it is more than a tad sentimental. Still, I was very much moved by this powerful and poignant production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Directed by Sheffield Theatres’ Artistic Director Robert Hastie, with irresistible songs of legendary singer-songwriter Richard Hawley and a beautiful, hilarious and gut-wrenching book by Chris Bush, Standing at the Sky’s Edge reveals the history of modern Britain through the stories of the landmark housing estate – a heartfelt exploration of the power of community and what it is we all call home.

By: Chris Bush
Songs by: Richard Hawley
Director: Robert Hastie
Choreography: Lynne Page
Cast list: Elizabeth Ayodele (as Joy), Joel Harper-Jackson (as Harry), Sharlene Hector (as Grace), Mel Lowe (as Connie), Laura Pitt-Pulford (as Poppy), Lauryn Redding (as Nikki), Samuel Jordan (as Jimmy), Baker Mukasa (as George), Alastair Natkiel (as Marcus), Rachael Wooding (as Rose)
Design: Ben Stones
Costumes: Ben Stones
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Sound: Bobby Aitken
Other info: Orchestrations and arrangements by Tom Deering, makeup design by Cynthia De La Rosa

Standing at the Sky’s Edge
Gillian Lynne Theatre

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