Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the Olivier Theatre

Sheffield has always been regarded as a gritty, edgy city – it’s not called the ‘Steel City’ for nothing and one of its football teams is nicknamed ‘The Blades’. Surrounded by the hills and rivers which supplied the iron, coal and water needed to make steel, it had a reputation that sets it apart from other cities in the north of England. Some of the areas in the city became slums and as the economy slumped, something had to be done and in the fifties, a whole area of rundown housing was demolished to make way for the community housing of the future, the so-called “Streets In The Sky” – Park Hill – which is where Standing At The Sky’s Edge is set.

Standing at the Sky's Edge. Maimuna Memon. Photo Johan Persson.
Standing at the Sky’s Edge. Maimuna Memon. Photo Johan Persson.

Originally produced at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in 2019, it has finally arrived in London at The Olivier having been delayed due to covid. On an enormous stage that sets Park Hill’s brutalist, concrete balconies within the National Theatre’s concrete walls, it seems to have grown organically within the space – it couldn’t have a more appropriate home.

The setting is one flat in an enormous complex that tells the tale of three occupiers over different times during the past sixty years or so. One story begins in 1960, another in 1989 and the third in 2015 – the changing years indicated by digital calendars above the stage. These are complex stories and intertwine as the years progress and lives move on.

In the first story, a working-class couple Rose (Rachael Wooding) and Harry (Robert Lonsdale) move into their new home, full of optimism for their future life in this amazing new community on the edge of the sky overlooking the city. In the second story, a family of African refugees move in scared of their new surroundings and what their future will bring. A young girl Joy (Faith Omole) has left her parents behind and is being brought up by her aunt and uncle and is terrified of the big city. In the last story, Poppy (Alex Young), a Londoner has come north to a new job running away from the break-up of a toxic relationship with Nikki (Maimuna Memon) and is looking for a new start.

These three stories are woven together with the various characters often filling the same space at the same time and sometimes singing the same song as although their lives are being lived years apart, the themes are universal, crisscrossing the ages. Tying all the strands together is Connie (Bobbie Little) who narrates the show and also is a character who has a connection with all three stories.

Standing At The Sky’s Edge is a big show. On the enormous set that seems to reach up to the sky, there’s a big cast and big, often complex themes. The piece touches on politics, gentrification, love, relationships, Brexit and community amongst other topics. It’s a composite and complicated narrative and at times it’s hard to follow as characters from one period crossover with a character from another – it does feel as if you should be taking notes in order to keep up with the timeline.

Writer Chris Bush uses Richard Hawley’s songs in the same way Conor McPherson uses the songs of Bob Dylan in Girl From The North Country and on the whole they fit the narrative perfectly. Hawley’s songs are a mixture of big anthems and gentle ballads that convey the character’s emotions effortlessly. The band consisting of a string section combined with a rock band, is superb and at times very loud – the theatre’s concrete foundations were rocking during “There’s A Storm Coming” which closes act two as the guitarist’s amp was turned up to 11 or possibly 12.

All the performances were superb with some wonderful singing especially from the four female leads, Alex Young, Faith Omole, Maimuna Memon and Bobbie Little. Bush’s dialogue is both witty and poignant and she makes her points without the show becoming a polemic. The only thing that doesn’t really work is the interpretive dance that detracts from the excellent singing. It’s as if director Robert Hastie thought this is a musical and needs some dancing – it doesn’t. Apart from that his direction is spot-on

Bush and Hawley have written a heartfelt love letter to a city that at times in its history has been neglected and unloved. Park Hill is still standing having been given Grade ii listed status in 1997 and is a proper community once more – as one of the characters says, it even has its own Wikipedia page. Standing At The Sky’s Edge is a fitting tribute to Park Hill and the people who have lived there and live there now.

4 stars

Review by Alan Fitter

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
https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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