mon 22/07/2024

Standing at the Sky's Edge, National Theatre review - razor-sharp musical with second-act woes | reviews, news & interviews

Standing at the Sky's Edge, National Theatre review - razor-sharp musical with second-act woes

Standing at the Sky's Edge, National Theatre review - razor-sharp musical with second-act woes

Chris Bush and Richard Hawley write a love letter to a friendly and flawed hometown

On the brink: the ensemble of 'Standing at the Sky's Edge'Johan Persson

Buildings can hold memories, the three dimensions of space supplemented by the fourth of time. Ten years ago, I started every working week with a meeting in a room that, for decades, had been used to conduct autopsies – I felt a little chill occasionally, as we dissected figures rather than bodies, ghosts lingering, as they do. 

Of course, Brutalism would shun such foolishly romantic notions, one of its key practitioners, Le Corbusier, famously remarking, “Architecture or revolution”. And with the white heat of technology still burning bright, he provided the template for the Park Hill estate forged in Sheffield in the early 1960s and now the setting for the transfer from that city's Crucible Theatre to the National of the musical Standing at the Sky's Edge.

“Streets in the skies” was the solution for the slums without sewers, and who wouldn’t want to live in a penthouse flat overlooking miles of Yorkshire’s urban edginess and rural beauty? But the revolution the Swiss-French visionary wished to avoid did not take place on the barricades of a boulevard, but in the boardrooms of steel and mining companies and, most obviously, in Number 10. As Mrs Thatcher’s post-industrial revolution got underway, powered by hard-nosed executives’ heartless business plans and enforced by police rather more interventionist than they are today, the early promise of high-rise living curdled into alienation, and the residents wanted out – but who, if anyone, would come in? Standing at the Sky's Edge, National TheatreThe answer was a property development company with different ideas and listed building status to protect their investment. Gentrification was the aim, leavened with the usual stuff about local communities, but who were these new sons and daughters of the Yuppie generation priced out of Brixton but delighted to find that Ocado delivered up North? And what happened to those who left/escaped/resisted the re-purposing for profit?  

The show, which comes from two Sheffield natives in playwright Chris Bush and songwriter Richard Hawley, tells the story of the South Yorkshire city specifically, and the UK generally, through the lifetime of one flat in that giant, sprawling development. We track three sets of occupants: Rose and Harry in the 1960s; Joy and Jimmy in the 1980s; and Poppy (and her returning ex Nikki) in the 2010s, as the winds of change buffet lives that are not as resilient as the concrete within which they live.

The first half is an exhilarating ride. With three timelines running concurrently, the director Robert Hastie keeps the storytelling admirably clear without indulging in distracting tricksiness, as we learn to love our flawed companions in the flat. (Indeed, it’s a testament to Ben Stones’ set and Mark Henderson’s lighting that the cavernous Olivier Theatre seems to shrink to the dimensions of an apartment with a balcony – it’s that intimate.)

But there are dark clouds looming. Rose is full of delight at merely escaping the slums, but Harry is over-invested in his job and hindsight tells us what happened to men like him, once "the youngest foreman in Sheffield". Joy, a refugee from Liberia, has already encountered racism and, her husband, Jimmy, is working in security, returning home on walkways that offer magnificent vistas in daylight, but plenty of hiding places in the dark. Poppy can’t stop answering her door to Nikki, half-motivated by the love she lost and half-motivated by the love she can’t find. There isn’t a right answer there.

Hawley’s songs dip and soar like a swallow exploring the blocks on the hill, the community singing even more thrilling than the individual vocals. It’s a delight to hear voices trained to deliver the clarity musical theatre demands unleashed on pop and rock ballads, sensationally played by Tom Deering’s band, given their own room at the back. “As the Dawn Breaks” is an electrifying opener, but even that is topped by “There’s a Storm A-Coming” that signals the tilt towards tragedy in the second half.

Standing at the Sky's Edge, National TheatreThe company of actor-singers (pictured top) get to the pulsing heart of the stories, Rachael Wooding all busy Yorkshire common sense as Rose, Alex Young all anxiety as Poppy, determined to continue telling herself that everything is fine until mere repetition makes it so. The emotions pour palpably into the vocals, especially when the dazzling Faith Omole, as Joy, and the underused Baker Mukasa (pictured above) as George step forward. Mukasa, who leads on the best song, “Tonight the Streets Are Ours” was a 2022 Ian Charleson Award nominee, and I can only imagine how good the winner must have been to top this West End star in the making!

But the thrills of the first half yield to a largely predictable, somewhat pedestrian second, as sentimentality and a keenness to drive home political points overwhelm the character studies so beautifully presented earlier. Things get overly generic – the love affair rekindled, the depression progressing, the good guy bullied one last time. That said, it was pleasing to hear Connie (Bobbie Little) present the very non-romantic and unapologetic view of someone who once lived way above ground and now lives on it with a dog and their own garden. Take it from someone who grew up very close to high-rise flats, most of my childhood friends would swap for a semi-detached in the blink of an eye – but such nuance is rare in the play’s third hour.

Transferring from Sheffield to London, the musical has much to offer a different audience (though I heard unmistakable Yorkshire vowels and rhythms of speech in the row behind me) though its themes are universal. It’s just a shame that the musical and narrative highs are so front-loaded. Rather like the optimism of those early residents moving into the Park Hill estate in the 1960s, our thrills diminish, things turning out to be okay, but not quite as good as we had hoped when we first took possession of our homes for the evening.   

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