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Standing at the Sky’s Edge, Gillian Lynne Theatre, London

I tend to think very associatively, so for me the reflexive way of making sense of a lot of theatre things is by using references to other things. (Upon viewing the musical in 2019 I wrote Standing at the Sky’s Edge was a 21st century Blood Brothers (it is), I also said it must transfer to our National Theatre (that it did). 

And when a new blog gets published, I’ve noticed an increasing number of readers saying that they’re saving it to read with a cup of tea or glass of wine. 

So, thanks for reading. 

Anyway, I feel blessed to have seen the debut of Standing at the Sky’s Edge at Sheffield’s Crucible theatre in 2019, before the pandemic. When it was restaged in Sheffield in 2022. At our Royal National Theatre in 2023. 

And, amazingly, witnessing it win two Olivier awards: best new musical and best original score – is something I will never forget. 

But here we are, 5 years on, a lot has happened in the world and the musical finds its home from home at the concrete fortress that is the Gillian Lynne Theatre.

In fact, I can now see that Standing at the Sky’s Edge is what helped me to find a way of writing about theatre that I hoped would be more accessible. 

Uncovering shows that excavate living history and contain work with diverse communities. 

“THAT neon’s been a bastard since day one,” says a workman passing by Sheffield’s Park Hill – Grade 2-listed brutalist council estate. 

“Should’ve torn the whole place down when they had the chance,” says another, looking up. 

“No, life in it yet,” comes the response. 

Indeed.

Here, brutalist blocks overlooking the UK’s ‘steel’ city – recreated with great flair in Ben Stones’ soaring concrete walkways: Sheffield’s Park Hill estate represents nothing less than the ruin of the ideals upon which Britain’s welfare state is based, the raw emotions of which resonates long after you leave the theatre. 

References are made to Henderson’s Relish, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United football teams and resentment at the gentrification; it’s good to see regional theatre being just that – relevant and local, especially now. 

The whole thing packs a hefty punch, both personal and political.

This heartfelt show – directed by Robert Hastie, fuelled by indie crooner Richard Hawley’s folk-rock songs and a brilliant book by Chris Bush – is a continuous theatrical experience rooted in Sheffield that keeps building, becoming ever more intense and euphoric. 

It refers to itself as “a love letter to Sheffield” and details the lives of three Northern working-class families. There’s inequality, too: generational, social, and regional, between the property haves and have-nots.

And this production may benefit from being a National Theatre co-production with 15 other producers, but it was born through tenacity and public subsidy; outside the M25 and thanks to shrewd partnerships and a world class passionate creative team.

Starting points are more or less three elections / political moments: the 1979 one that brought Thatcher to power, the Brexit referendum and the inevitable levelling-up letdown are the unavoidable background to the stories. 

We start in the 1960s, a home of the newlywed Rose (Rachael Wooding) and steelworker, Harry (Joel Harper Jackson), followed by a Liberian refugee Joy (Elizabeth Ayodele), and finally Poppy (Laura Pitt-Pulford), a middle-class Londoner dealing with the breakdown of her relationship with Nikki (Lauryn Redding).

I want to say that Rachael Wooding’s power as Rose is astounding… She bites right through the soapy domestic pulp; the finale reprise scene ‘As the Dawn Breaks’ is shattering, and it won’t go away.

Anyway, the great virtue of Standing at the Sky’s Edge (the track featured on Hawley’s 2012 album of the same name) is that it captures both the internal and external struggles individuals face in finding a home. It is also put across by a cast who sing, dance and act with exemplary commitment.

But the pleasure in Bush’s increasingly funny book is in the way that, with designer Stones, they gradually expand the journeys that each family go on. 

Yet, Hastie is playing a subtler game with the subject material, turning the musical into a study of the power of community against the backdrop of industrial decay. 

This musical argues smartly, with practical political sense, that it is not enough simply to build more houses: there must be a plan in which homes are created where there is work. 

The faults can be quickly explained. At almost three hours, the show is too long and loses some momentum particularly in the final quarter. Likewise, the dots connecting the three overlaid narratives occasionally slide. 

If you are a Tory, you will probably find it unsettling.

What is clear, however, is that, this is the most original and important musical in the West End. I hope that audiences get behind it. A first-rate piece of work by a director who’s daring and agile… It’s heaven; alive in a way that West End musicals rarely are.

Park Hill in 1961 … the ‘streets in the sky’ – designed to be wide enough to drive a milk float along. 

In that context, North-south wealth inequality in England is on course to grow, stating the richest 10% hold almost half of all wealth, according to a new report by thinktank IPPR North; a new and widening class divide has been created through systemic neglect.

In fact, the housing crisis in Britain is now so bad that empty high street shops and offices could be converted to homes. 

Anyhow, this week, at the press night I bumped into Richard Hawley.

“Things will get better. Won’t they?” I asked.

“Things will change, pal. As long as we learn from history,” he eloquently said with a fag in his mouth. 

A memo to the Prime Minister and Chancellor ahead of this week’s budget that investment in public services and funding are key to reversing the growing scandalous regional divide and a broken country where nothing really works. 

Later this year we head to the polls, do batten your hatches accordingly. 

Standing at the Sky’s Edge runs at the Gillian Lynne Theatre, London until August 2024

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Standing at the Sky’s Edge Cast Recording Released January 2023

Chris Bush and Richard Hawley’s magnificent across-the-decades musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge Official Cast Recording – recorded live – will be released on digital platforms and CD on 27 January 2023. Now you know.


The award winning musical – set in Park Hill, Sheffield is running at Crucible Theatre until 21 January 2023.

Winner of the Best Musical Production at the UK Theatre Awards and the 2020 South Bank Sky Arts Award for Theatre, Standing at the Sky’s Edge is a celebration of strength and solidarity, set to the irresistible sounds of Richard Hawley.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge runs at National Theatre, London from 9 Feb until 25 Mar 2023.