“Standing at the Sky’s Edge” at Gillian Lynne Theatre

Jeremy Malies in the West End
5 March 2024

I had been transfixed for much of it, transported through three time sequences, resolved to research the background, and enraged by turns against the vulgarity of neighbourhood gentrification and the obscenity that was so-called Thatcherite economic liberalization.


Rachael Wooding  and Joel Harper-Jackson.
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg.


But only at the close did things truly gel for me. Mel Lowe, whose estate agent character Connie has served as a Chorus figure and been allowed to step out of the narrative, sang for the first time. From a breathy grace note, she hit and held a “D”. Late to the party as usual, I realized that I was watching something not merely first-rate but world-class.

Lowe’s number was “Don’t Get Hung Up in Your Soul” in which Connie sings to her child self in this piece by Richard Hawley (music and lyrics) and Chris Bush (book). After premiering at the Crucible (Sheffield Theatres) in 2019, being revived at the same venue three years later, and transferring to the National Theatre in 2023 (where it won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical), the show now opens at the Gillian Lynne Theatre on Drury Lane.

“Three mornings, decades apart, / Same old sun / That makes optimists suffer lovesick” runs the opening number. The mornings are in 1961, 1989, and 2019 at the gargantuan Park Hill development in central Sheffield which at its peak contained 995 flats housing 3,000 people across 32 acres. External walkways were so wide that they were referred to as “streets in the sky”.

Bush’s brilliant plot structure (there are some similarities with Clybourne Park) follows three unrelated families in the same flat from the initial pristine brutalist concrete tenanted by a trade unionist and his wife played by Joel Harper-Jackson and Rachael Wooding. Harper-Jackson acquires detail unobtrusively and is visibly blanched by the late seventies as his character falls victim to a Tory assault on trade union power and encouragement of employers to challenge shop stewards. The song “There’s a Storm Coming” is interrupted by audio clips from Thatcher’s speeches in sound design by Bobby Aitken.

Wooding in her miniskirts and box coat (costumes by Ben Stones) embodies the period as she fantasizes about afternoon trysts with vocalist Marty Wilde before being forced to focus on her husband’s battles with redundancy and alcoholism. This section is affecting when it shows how miners and steel workers in the city looked out for each other.


Elizabeth Ayodele and Samuel Jordan.
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg.


The 1989 sequence begins with a Liberian couple and their niece moving into the now run-down flat after they have escaped civil war in their homeland. Director Robert Hastie shows a delicate touch with humour throughout, no more so than when Connie condescendingly explains the now decrepit mod cons as if a West African couple would be unused to running water or mains power. A vocal highlight for me here is Baker Mukasa’s tenor creating broad sweeping lines as he leads on “Tonight the Streets Are Ours”. His character would not know that planners have named the streets that surround him after the previous back-to-back tenements on the land.

The wonderful Lowe is able to make us visualize events and sights far beyond the theatre’s thrust stage. “People used to come from miles around to chuck themselves off here!” Only towards the close does Stones (he is also the set designer) draw our attention upwards to what in some sections of the development were 13-storey towers. With the help of filters from lighting designer Mark Henderson, Stones shows us the pastel shades that a refurbishing architect used to soften the original Le Corbusier-inspired outlines. There is an uplifting sequence in which all three sets of characters take to the rooftop in the set to celebrate New Year’s Eve in their respective eras.

You would need to be a Sheffield local (and well into middle age) to get all the references as Lauryn Redding playing Nikki (part of an estranged lesbian couple in the most recent of the time schemes) says that she aspires to a house in the affluent suburb of Fulwood and unlimited quantities of the sickly-sweet ice cream dessert Viennetta. But I don’t accept that this is parochial – Chris Bush is too good a writer for that, and her concerns are far-reaching. I would wager that with not that much rewriting you could work the essence of the story into other ill-considered sixties mixed-rise housing developments ranging from Gorbals (Glasgow) to Chicago.

The band members (arrangement and direction by Tom Deering) are prominent to the front of two of the storeys in the set. A jazzy instrumental interlude slows proceedings and takes us down a gear just as the musical needs some space to breathe. The famed “I Love You Will U Marry Me” graffito is picked out stage left but Connie tells us that, as with so many couples here, the ending was not a happy one.

The message? Much of the content is political and all three settings are shown on the night of general elections whose atmosphere Hastie manages to catch deftly.

But there is no crude agitprop or finger-wagging. The musical is saying that architecture alone can’t solve people’s problems and Blakeian ideals about building a new Jerusalem tend to fade in your rear-view mirror. Urban solidarity even between diverse social groups (we see a colour-blind society that welcomes same-sex partnerships) and just being kind to your immediate neighbour amid blighted ambitions can keep us sane. As Workman 1, Jonathon Bentley tells us that seeing the right kind of sunrise behind a place you call home can be like “hitting the concrete with the full force of a first kiss”. That is not a bad takeaway from a musical that even in its fourth UK iteration is transporting everyone who sees it.