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Standing at the Sky's Edge theatre review

Standing at the Sky's Edge review | What we thought

Here's what one of our top theatre experts thought about one of Britain's best modern musicals, Standing at the Sky's Edge…

A local Sheffield story for a global stage

Standing at the Sky's Edge follows the lives of three generations living in the brutalist Park Hill housing estate in Sheffield over 60 years, from when the infamous estate was built to the present day. During its run in Sheffield's Crucible Theatre, it won the UK Theatre Award for Best Musical Production and the South Bank Sky Award, while the London production won Olivier Awards for Best New Musical and Best Original Score in 2023.

But is it worth the hype? The short answer is yes – this is British theatre at its very best. Chris Bush's writing pulls on the heartstrings by focusing on the easily relatable struggles of Sheffield locals, but also deals with wider political and cultural issues over the past six decades. Poverty, migration, the decline of industry and regeneration are themes covered with great care. Plus Richard Hawley's incredible soundtrack is not just the icing on the cake but the beating heart around which the story revolves so beautifully.

Standing at the Sky's Edge performance from 2022 & 2023 cast.

The rise, fall, and controversial rise of Park Hill estate

Filled with row after row of terraced houses in disrepair, Park Hill was known as 'Little Chicago' in the 1930s thanks to the high crime rate and unsanitary conditions. The slums and gangs were eventually cleared, and construction of the Park Hill estate started in post-war 1957 to finally rehome the former residents.

The design at the time was considered revolutionary – neighbours were housed next to each other in these 'streets in the sky', which kept street names from the old neighbourhood and were complete with a baker, butcher, doctor, dentist and four pubs to maintain a sense of the former community. And to begin with, it worked. Joel Harper-Jackson and Rachael Wooding deliver moving performances as steel worker Harry and housewife Rose, who convey the early optimism of moving to the estate in the early 60s and the gradual decline in living conditions to great effect.

Fast forward to the 80s and the decline of Sheffield's steel industry has made life hard for many of the estate's workers who once relied on it, cultivating the ideal conditions for crime and anti-social behaviour to dominate the headlines once more. Liberian refugees Joy, Grace and George have moved in, and Elizabeth Ayodele in particular does a wonderful job as Joy tries to navigate her new life away from her parents in a cold and often unsafe environment.

The building was Grade II listed in 1998 in the hope of attracting private investment, making it the largest listed building in Europe. This was controversial at the time given Park Hill estate's reputation as an unused, unloved eyesore that some would rather see knocked down, but regeneration began in 2004 and new life has been breathed into the estate with colourful flats and communal spaces. Laura Pitt-Pulford puts in an exceptional performance as Poppy, who moved from London in 2015 and represents the new generation of Park Hill residents searching for community.

An award-winning soundtrack

Such a moving story deserves an equally moving score, and Richard Hawley's back catalogue of soulful love letters to Sheffield more than delivers. His solo work has been nominated for the Mercury Prize twice and a Brit Award, and having grown up in Sheffield his lyrics and sound are heavily influenced by the city.

Hawley's heartfelt, atmospheric songs that combine screeching guitars with orchestral arrangements are made for the stage. The band and orchestra overlook the stage from the incredibly designed Park Hill balcony and deserve huge credit for providing a soundtrack that'll have your hair standing on end, as do the cast who deliver some exceptional vocal performances. Honourable mentions go to Tonight the Street's Are Ours, an upbeat moment that does great justice to one of Hawley's signature songs, and There's a Storm A-Coming which closes Act I with an unforgettable bang.

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