Mark Shenton on the South Bank
14 February 2023
After producing one of the biggest musical misfires of the last few years in Hex – which was unaccountably brought back for a second run last Christmas after its original 2021 run was cut short by Covid – the National Theatre now seeks to re-establish its position as an advocate for new musical theatre by importing the bold new British musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge from Sheffield’s Crucible. The National should be a leader in this field, and has indeed been so before with shows like Jerry Springer: The Opera and London Road. But on the other hand, it has had real clangers with The Light Princess and Pinocchio.
Darragh Cowley as Workman 1. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
Meanwhile, places like the Crucible have become regional powerhouses, with new British musicals such as Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Flowers for Mrs Harris, and This Is My Family. Now it strikes fresh gold with a heartfelt, theatrically rich portrait of the famous modernist Park Hill housing estate in the city, set to a score based on a 2012 studio album from singer-songwriter Richard Hawley. (Hawley himself hails from Sheffield, and his grandparents lived in the slums that were razed to build the estate, but didn’t get one of the new flats that replaced their home, even though they queued to do so.)
But as vividly directed by the Crucible’s artistic director Robert Hastie, the show does more than just put the songs on stage. Like Girl from the North Country did with Bob Dylan’s back catalogue, it uses them to add context and atmosphere to a powerful story of three generations of the community who’ve called it home, newly crafted by playwright Chris Bush. The songs often seem to stand outside the action, but are intricately folded within it at the same time: a rare feat of dramatic and musical juxtaposition and integration.
Standing at the Sky’s Edge is centred on the same flat that is occupied, in turn, by a young English working-class couple, an immigrant family, and a displaced London lesbian starting a new life in the city in 1960, 1989, and 2018 respectively. As their lives unfold in what is referred to as a castle built of streets in the sky, we get an intimate and intricate portrait of a community, through periods from deprivation to gentrification.
Faith Omole and Baker Mukasa. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
A stunning ensemble that includes the fierce and fabulous Alex Young and the extraordinarily passionate-voiced Maimuna Memon as the Londoner and her former girlfriend respectively bring depth, colour, and integrity to populate the show with the sense that these are real lives, not just dramatic representations. Ben Stones’s set is, of course, entirely a representation, but housing John Rutledge’s guitar and string-based band in sight on the upper level, it brings the estate to teeming 3D life. Lynne Page’s choreography, too, contributes effortless fluidity to the way the songs are seamlessly integrated into the dramatic action.
This is the best musical of British working-class life and community since Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers – coincidentally also premiered regionally first, in Liverpool – and which similarly deserves a long life beyond Sheffield and now London. It has already won the UK Theatre Award for Best Musical Production and the 2020 South Bank Sky Arts Award for Theatre; it will be the one to beat at the next Olivier Awards.