Life & Culture

Theatre review: Standing at the Sky’s Edge - 'It aspires to be a state of the nation musical'

This Sheffield show amounts to less than the sum of its parts


STANDING ON THE SKYS EDGE by Bush, , Writer - Chris Bush, Music and Lyrics - Richard Hawley, Director - Robert Hastie, Designer - Ben Stones, Choreographer - Lynne Page, Lighting - Mark Henderson, A Sheffield Theatres Production, 2022, Credit: Johan Persson/

National Theatre | ★★★✩✩

This is one of those shows you might feel guilty about not loving. Created for the Sheffield community and first shown at the city’s Crucible Theatre, this new musical with a score by the talented rock musician Richard Hawley is set in Park Hill, the high-rise estate that is visible from the Crucible’s foyer.
Though the action is largely contained in one of the estate’s top floor flats, writer Chris Bush has found a way of spanning the 60 years of the building’s existence.
The optimistic 1960s, the industrial conflict and decline of the 1980s and the gentrifying 2010s are all simultaneously represented through the stories of the two families and one singleton who occupied the flat. Though by the time middle class Poppy (Alex Young) from London moves in as a way of running from a failed relationship, the place is a pricey des res with Le Corbousier credibility, and no longer a rat-infested, neglected concrete pile stalked by knife-wielding teens.
In that sense Standing at the Sky’s Edge aspires not only to be a show about and for local people, but a state-of-the-nation musical.
Steel worker Harry and his wife Rose (Robert Lonsdale and Rachael Wooding) are first to move in. Then it is Liberian refugee Joy (Faith Omole), a schoolgirl teen whose parents never managed to escape the conflict back home and so she lives under the care of her aunt and cousin. Poppy’s arrival brings the show up to present day.
The triumph of Robert Hastie’s admirable production is that it transfers the ambition of Bush’s non-linear script with clarity to the stage. The human traffic of a city and its estate move with clockwork precision, allowing for three generations and the periods in which they live to co-exist on one stage at the same time. Nothing better illustrates this achievement than when Poppy, Joy’s family and Harry are all sitting at the same kitchen table at the same time.
All of this is set to a score written by Hawley that is tender, rocky and, at its melodic best brings to mind the late Burt Bacharach. You can see why the show won praise and awards following its world premiere at the Crucible in 2019.
Yet with this transfer to the National’s massive Olivier stage, into which designer Ben Stones’s skeletal set elegantly expands, the promise that this show will generate the irresistible force of that other Sheffield hit, Everyone’s Talking About Jamie, is never quite realised.
Yes this musical is beautifully performed and brilliantly conceived.
But other than the relationship between Joy and her boyfriend Jimmy (the excellent Samuel Jordan) we never know the protagonists well enough to be fully invested in their fate.
And unlike Jamie, a show which brilliantly argues for inclusivity yet soars above the good intentions of its creators, the good intent here— to make a show about and for a community — is always conspicuously present, daring you to be doubtful.
This is not to deny that that the evening has a lot going for it. But it is to say that that this musical amounts to less than the sum of its parts.

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