“So what’s this show about” asked Lord and Lady Prosecco en route to their annual Christmas shindig in Sheffield. “Not sure,” came my honest reply. “I think it might be Sheffield’s answer to Blood Brothers.” And, to be fair, I wasn’t that far off the mark. Both shows offer an insight into living in poor council housing, relocating to somewhere better, and surviving (or not) the Thatcher era, plus a not insubstantial dollop of melodrama, and some fabulous songs. But they’re rather surface similarities, and, deep down, it’s not really a helpful comparison.
Chris Bush loves to portray things in threes, doesn’t she? Only a few months ago we saw her brilliant Rock Paper Scissors where all three theatres within the Sheffield complex were used to tell the same story in the same real time but from three different locations/aspects. Her challenge in Standing at the Sky’s Edge is to tell three different stories over three different eras, but all of which take place in the same flat. Characters from the 60s to the 80s blend with others from the 90s and noughties and more characters from the past ten years. There’s a gorgeously staged scene where all three sets of characters eat a meal at the dining table, striding the decades, in blissful ignorance of each other. I bet Alan Ayckbourn is kicking himself for not having thought of that one.
There’s the young couple, Rose and Harry, starting out, the first residents of the flat, full of hope, ambition and positivity. He prides himself on being “the youngest foreman this city has ever seen” and is thrilled to be able to provide for both his wife and the child they soon hope to have. The 90s bring a family of refugees from Liberia, Grace, George and Joy, fleeing the terror of the Civil War. Unfamiliar with life in Sheffield, they have to learn the local accent, food and customs, not knowing whom to trust. And as the Estate starts to gentrify in the 2010s, a middle class Londoner, Poppy, relocates to the flat to start her life over again, following the breakdown of a relationship. We follow the first two families through their lives in the flat, until circumstances dictate that it’s time to leave. And we observe the progress made by the third resident until she comes to a life-changing moment in the here and now.
Every so often a show comes along that you can feel in your bones is Something Significant. Standing at the Sky’s Edge isn’t perfect, but Chris Bush, together with Richard Hawley’s music and lyrics, have structured such a heart-warming, thought-provoking, breath-taking piece of theatre that it stops you in your tracks. There’s no doubt that it’s an homage to Sheffield – specifically the Park Hill Estate which I’d never heard of but had to Google. It is an iconic address; a brutalist design influenced by Le Corbusier, that had slowly dilapidated over the years but is now revitalised and upmarket. However, if you’re not a Sheffield local, it doesn’t matter; you’ll still recognise that same sense of belonging that runs through this show like a stick of rock. It also doesn’t matter if you don’t get the local references. I’m not from Sheffield although I have visited the city on and off for the past forty years. Nevertheless, I confess I’d never heard of Henderson’s Relish! But the audience reaction to its mention implies that most Sheffield kids started eating it on their rusks. The opinion about the BBC that it stands for Bourgeoisie Bastards of Capitalism got a big round of applause; this is a text that is absolutely in tune with its audience.
Forget any similarities with Blood Brothers; if there is another contemporary musical with which this can be linked, it’s Come From Away – with its themes of displaced people in a new environment, relying on the kindness of strangers, emphasising all that’s good about human nature. The show takes us from 1960 to the present day, but of course the flat at the centre of the action doesn’t necessarily stop there. In forty years’ time there could be Sky’s Edge 2, with at least two new generations of residents with their tales to tell. If there’s one thing that this show tells us, it’s that, no matter what, life goes on.
When you enter the auditorium you’re greeted by Ben Stones’ delightfully expansive set, a corner edge of an apartment set in the sky (which houses John Rutledge’s excellent band) and looks down on the flat below. Suspended in the sky are the words I love you will U marry me, the famous graffiti that graced the Park Hill Estate for twenty years from 2001; they will give you a lump in your throat at the end of the show.
One of my pet hates in musicals is where a song doesn’t follow organically from the action that proceeds it and doesn’t move the story on; you should always come out of a musical theatre song in a different place from the one where you went into it, imho. Otherwise, the musical becomes all stop-start and the songs are just spacers separating one piece of action from another. Standing at the Sky’s Edge proves the exception to the rule. Remarkably, for the most part, the songs are extremely stand-alone and come across more like an ancient Greek Chorus observing and commenting on the action, rather than emerging naturally from the plot.
Yet they work brilliantly. Fortunately, this cast is blessed with possibly the best collection of singing voices you’ve ever witnessed in a show, so each number has a massive impact. Even on first hearing, there are a few songs here that will become absolute musical theatre standards in the years to come. The glorious I’m Looking for Someone to Find Me, the emotional For Your Lover Give Some Time, and the stirring Open Up Your Door are already timeless classics. But all the music is truly beautiful.
And the performances are sublime, from the main roles right down to the supporting cast. The ever-reliable Alex Young is brilliant as the middle class Poppy, coping with the culture shock of bringing Ottolenghi Aubergine to South Yorkshire; Rachael Wooding and Robert Lonsdale are terrific as the 1960s Rose and Harry, bursting with vim and vigour until fortunes turn against them; Samuel Jordan is superb as the kind-hearted Jimmy (I saw him when he was a University of Northampton student!); Maimuna Memon sings sensationally as Poppy’s ex, Nikki; and, a real star of the future, Faith Omole is stunning as Joy, with the most extraordinary voice and a performance that will break your heart. But everyone works together brilliantly – this is show is the definition of ensemble – and there isn’t a weak link in sight.
I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t tell you about my slight reservations. First – from a production point of view – there are a couple of sequences where the sound balance between the band and the vocals was totally out of whack, and you couldn’t hear one word of what was being sung – most notably in the final song of Act One, There’s a Storm a-Coming. I also thought that the two deaths that take place in the show – no spoilers, I won’t say who – weren’t really necessary, and that, especially with the younger character, Chris Bush has created something deliberately tragic; it was almost Thomas Hardyesque in its fatalism. The same observational point could have been made without the characters dying. Perhaps, also, the show is 15 minutes too long, and some of the storylines could have progressed a little niftier. And we were also unconvinced by the plot resolution in the 2020 timeline; it’s a gloomy observation that a character who had developed so far forward would allow themselves to regress into a toxic relationship – and we just didn’t believe it of her.
All that said, there’s no doubt this is a landmark show, that absolutely puts Sheffield on the map and is fully deserving of its transfer to the National Theatre in the New Year. Congratulations to everyone on a piece of theatrical history!
Production photos by Johan Persson