BWW Review: STANDING AT THE SKY'S EDGE, Crucible, Sheffield
Over the past few years, Sheffield's Crucible Theatre has become not only a go-to destination for revivals of classic musicals, but a hub for exciting new work, from Flowers For Mrs Harris to Everybody's Talking About Jamie.
Standing at the Sky's Edge is the latest musical to debut at the theatre and has been generating quite the buzz around the city, with extra performances being added due to demand.
The musical has been written to mark the 60th anniversary of the first people moving into Sheffield's Park Hill estate, the large brutalist concrete housing complex that occupies the skyline near the city centre, which is currently partway through a long-running renovation project.
Directed by Robert Hastie, it tells the story of the three households who occupy the same flat from 1960 to the present. In 1960, we meet young couple Rose (Rachael Wooding) and Harry (Robert Lonsdale) - a steelworker who wants to become the youngest ever foreman.
In 1989, we follow migrant teenager Joy (Faith Omole) and her family, newly arrived in the country. In 2016, Poppy (Alex Young), a middle-class southerner who has moved up north for a fresh start, takes hold of one of the revamped properties.
The three time periods overlap throughout, with characters from different eras often occupying the stage at the same time - and the connections between the three soon become clear. As each of our three households move through the years, we see the impact of different political moments and social changes on the characters, and on the estate itself.
The musical is written by Chris Bush, with songs by local musical hero Richard Hawley - some new, others from his back catalogue. Incorporating existing songs into a musical invokes the spectre of the oft-derided 'jukebox musical' - but if this is a jukebox musical, it's one like no other (not least because the idea of a Richard Hawley musical could only ever happen in Sheffield!).
The older songs fit so well into Bush's script that it feels as though they were written for the show rather than the other way round. Listening to Hawley's versions again today, following last night's performance, I was hearing them afresh, infused with a new resonance and depth.
The arrangements by Tom Deering are beautiful, with a nice mixture of solos, multi-performer songs and whole group numbers. All are strong, but the full-cast set-pieces are truly spectacular - from the upbeat "Tonight the Streets Are Ours" (possibly Hawley's most well-known song) to the dramatic cacophony of "Standing at the Sky's Edge", which represents low points for all the characters, and the estate itself, as Act One comes to a climax.
The show is visually stunning, with Ben Stones' multi-level set design lovingly replicating the concrete of the estate and Mark Henderson's lighting providing a wonderfully atmospheric sense of time and mood. Lynne Page's choreography is dazzling, especially in the group performances, which make great use of the different levels of the set.
All of the cast are strong, with the female performers in particular having some great moments to shine. There is a good balance between drama and comedy - with some great lines that had the whole theatre laughing throughout (some jokes are very Sheffield, but there's enough here for those less familiar with the city to enjoy).
Plot wise, there are perhaps a few too many contrivances and one or two of the characters would have merited more development; Maimuna Memon's Nikki, for example, is performed well - and has a sensational solo - but it's never clear what we are meant to think of the character or her tempestuous relationship with Poppy.
The play raises a lot of complex issues around housing, gentrification and social change without presenting any glib or easy answers. It doesn't shy away from the fact that Park Hill has always been - and remains - a controversial development that divides opinion.
The theatre has been in dialogue with residents past and present in developing the show, and there are also audio and photographic works featuring these residents both online and in the theatre to accompany the show.
The performance received the fastest standing ovation I've seen - and with good reason. It isn't a perfect show, but it's pretty special: fresh, dynamic, and very Sheffield.
Standing at the Sky's Edge is at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, until 6 April
Photo by Johan Persson