mon 15/04/2024

Standing at the Sky's Edge, Gillian Lynne Theatre review - heartwarming Sheffield musical arrives in the West End | reviews, news & interviews

Standing at the Sky's Edge, Gillian Lynne Theatre review - heartwarming Sheffield musical arrives in the West End

Standing at the Sky's Edge, Gillian Lynne Theatre review - heartwarming Sheffield musical arrives in the West End

Olivier Award-winning musical offers a celebration of community and a stirring exploration of a brutalist building's history

Taking in the View: Lauryn Redding and Laura Pitt-Pulford at 'the Sky's Edge'Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Can there be anyone from Sheffield who has not seen Standing at the Sky’s Edge, possibly several times?

This is the once local show, opening at the Sheffield Crucible in 2019, playing at the National Theatre's Olivier in 2023, and now bringing a touch of Sheffield warmth and straight-talking into the West End, where it will no doubt worm its way into the hearts of a multitude of spectators wherever they are from; it also won a Best Musical Olivier Award along the way.

Who would have predicted such success for a musical about the great brutalist block, inspired by Le Corbusier, which sits on the skyline above the city and which would have been pulled down years ago if it hadn’t been given listed status in 1997? The musical must be one of the very few ever to have been reviewed by the RIBA’s house journal, presumably from an architectural point of view.

With music by Richard Hawley and a book by Chris Bush, Sheffield natives both, the show tells the history of the building, while also reflecting on the history of our times, through the different occupants of a single flat from 1960 to today.

Initially, Rose and Harry (the youngest foreman at the steelworks) are delighted to escape the slums and to be moved into a brand new flat with running water, refrigerator, and cooker all provided. All they want is a child to complete the dream. The child comes, but, by 1989, the building is falling apart, many of the flats are empty, and Sheffield itself has been hit both by the closure of the mines and the steel works. When Joy arrives from Liberia with her aunt and uncle, not only do they have to adjust to a new location but they are also warned to lock their front door and to protect themselves against racist attacks. The wheel spins again and gentrification takes hold. The town sells the building to developers for a pittance who turn it into a desirable residence. Along comes Poppy in 2015, escaping London and her ex-girlfriend, and determined to make a new life for herself in the North. Look at the view, everyone exclaims as they arrive in the flat for the very first time.

Elizabeth Ayodele and Samuel Jordan as Joy and JimmyBush’s handling of the different stories is exceptionally deft, although she could usefully ditch the narrator. Time is constantly shifting as she explores employment, and the lack of it, election nights, and New Year’s Eves over the years. The inhabitants’ stories weave in and out, reflecting on each other, as they move from hope to disappointment and back to hope again.

Ben Stones’s towering set allows us to glimpse the excellent band as well as the comings and goings of the building’s inhabitants along the walkways. Robert Hastie’s production also creates a powerful sense of community, whether the crowd is feeling trapped in "Midnight Train" or raging in despair and anger in "There’s a Storm A-Comin’". Lynne Page’s choreography adds to the restless atmosphere of this city in the sky. As engrossing as the characters’ lives are collectively, there’s a strong sense that any one of the building’s occupants could have an equally powerful story to tell.

The three central women – Rachael Wooding as Rose, and new cast members Elizabeth Ayodele as Joy and Laura Pitt-Pulford as Poppy – all draw one into their stories as they revel in Hawley’s soulful music. As Rose, Wooding moves from a traditional housewife to an independent woman. Ayodele's Joy (pictured above with Samuel Jordan as Jimmy) is very touching as she falls for a local boy and dreams of being a doctor despite the challenges of her situation. And Pitt-Pulford's Poppy, in the most humorous of the storylines, has to decide what she wants from life. There are several jokes at Poppy’s expense as this Londoner attempts to adapt to her new surroundings, is introduced to Henderson’s Relish, and is surprised to discover that Ottolenghi is not completely unknown in the north. None of the stories is subtle, but they go straight to the heart as the characters struggle to make the best of what life throws at them.

For all its virtues, this is a highly engaging musical but not a great one. It is absolutely understandable why someone thought that Hawley’s emotional songs were ripe to be incorporated into a musical, but because they are not specific to the characters and their situations, they can also be frustrating.

There is no place here for the nod and a wink as befits the inter-action between songs and story in, say, Mamma Mia. (Girl from the North Country coped with this same problem more successfully.) Hawley’s songs are terrific, but they can feel like an interruption rather than integral to the story, and two or three could even be cut. It's the company’s commitment to the tale they are telling that makes this musical so appealing and that looks set on this evidence to extend the show's life.

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