A musical love letter to Sheffield
‘It’s just a box that keeps the rain off — if you’re lucky’
By Dan Hayes
“There’s a dog turd near the lifts on Norwich,” writes one exasperated commenter on the Park Hill Residents’ Group on Facebook. “Someone’s thrown up in the stairwell on Long Henry,” complains another. As someone who has lived at the sprawling 1960s brutalist complex for the past five years, I’m used to updates like these. But I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Park Hill is a building that constantly tries your patience, but one you can’t help loving all the same.
So you couldn’t keep me away from a musical that documents and challenges the history of these famous flats. Written by Chris Bush and featuring the music of Sheffield singer-songwriter Richard Hawley, Standing at the Sky’s Edge tells the story of Park Hill over 60 years, from when the first flats opened in the early 1960s to their present day redevelopment. Its first run won awards, and it was due to play at the National Theatre in London and come back to Crucible when Covid struck.
The musical tells three separate stories, at the same time and in the same flat, separated by six decades. Still with me? So, we get a couple who move in when the flats were built in the early 1960s, a family who are housed there as the building is at its lowest ebb in the late 1980s, and a woman who arrives after the flats’ renovation in the 2010s. But one generation doesn’t leave the stage as the other arrives. The whole cast inhabits the space at the same time, walking among the ghosts of the past and future lives that have shared the same flat during the building’s 60-year history.
I first saw the play at the Crucible in spring 2019, which now seems like a lifetime ago. Since then, a global pandemic has morphed seamlessly into a cost of living crisis. The Queen has died and we seem to have had about 17 different Prime Ministers. For me personally, back in 2019 I’d only been living at Park Hill for a year and it was still a bit of a novelty. Now, coming up to my fifth anniversary here, I’m a grizzled veteran of the building, warts and all. I’ve also left The Star to set up The Tribune, and in my new job have written a lot about both Park Hill and the period of Sheffield’s history it came from. I was interested to know how I would react to the show with all this water under the bridge. How would it feel in the Sheffield of 2022?
Well, if we’ve all changed since 2019, so has Standing at the Sky’s Edge. As you might expect, some of the cast are different for one. As well as that, some of the Richard Hawley songs producers have chosen to tell the flats’ story have been rethought. And the show is even staged very differently, with greater use of the musical’s multiple timelines on the same stage at the same time. Some of this was so cleverly done it was thrilling to watch, with cast members who are inhabiting worlds decades apart all sat down eating their tea round the same dining table.
These are big changes, and testament to writer Chris Bush’s desire not to rest on the laurels of the show’s previous award-winning run and do something new and interesting with the 2022 iteration of the musical. But it’s not just the actors, songs and staging: a very different story is told. Whereas the 2019 version felt like an unashamed celebration of one of the city’s most iconic buildings, this feels much more nuanced and complex. It feels as if the show had been deliberately recalibrated for our more uncertain times, and is all the more compelling for it. I absolutely loved the previous show, but this version is even better.
Firstly, it is much more political. This comes across in snippets of the outside world protruding in the cast’s lives: Margaret Thatcher speaks on the radio; a miner goes back to work after the year-long strike. But it’s also told directly through the eyes of the cast. During his descent into alcoholism, unemployed steelworker Harry (Robert Lonsdale) rages against a system which makes workers grateful for the crumbs those in power let fall from the table. Later, in the run up to the 1992 general election, idealistic Jimmy (Samuel Jordan) tells Joy (Faith Omole) about the huge changes that will happen when Labour gets back into power, hopes we all know will be dashed just a few week’s later.
At its heart, though, Standing at the Sky’s Edge is about ordinary people doing ordinary things. Arriving in a place and leaving a place. Living their lives in between. And here too the show makes its points with greater clarity than in 2019. At one point a character says each flat at Park Hill is nothing more than “a box that keeps the rain off — if you’re lucky”. What’s really important is what takes place inside them, and these people’s stories are without exception believably and movingly told.
Harry and Rose arrive hoping to start a family but three decades later Rose and her son Jimmy leave on their own having lost Harry to unemployment and drink. Joy comes from wartorn Liberia with her aunty and uncle and originally hates it, but unexpectedly finds love until tragedy strikes. Poppy moves to Sheffield from London to start a new life (or escape her old one), only to be reunited with the woman she loves at Park Hill. As you watch you become aware of just how many thousands of people’s lives must have unfolded in different ways in this building over the last 60 years. All we’re doing is just focusing on one flat.
It’s also, as you might expect, very funny. Londonder Poppy’s discovery that she can buy turmeric root in the local market and doesn’t need Ocado pokes fun at the building’s newest residents and their preconceptions about Sheffield. But probably the biggest laughs are reserved for a brilliant scene where our three generations of Park Hill dwellers all enjoy Henderson’s relish around the dinner table. “It’s a bit like Worcester sauce,” says Poppy at one point. “Don’t ever say that,” replies Sheffield native Marcus (there was actually an audible intake of breath from the audience as she said it).
On top of all of that, some of the vocal performances were simply mind-blowing. Nikki’s (Maimuna Memon) performance of Open up your door and Rose’s (Rachael Wooding) After the rain were particular highlights, but I could have chosen any one of more than half a dozen. Richard Hawley’s back catalogue is so indestructibly good that every single song is a stone-cold classic, from Tonight the streets are ours and My little treasures to Cole’s Corner and There's a storm a'coming.
It’s appropriate, given Park Hill’s imposing visual appearance, that the show looks as impressive as it does. The set is perfect and the choreography of the big set pieces, such as the near riot at the end of the first act, was just astonishing to behold, especially sitting in the third row as we were. However, even the smaller moments that take place in the background felt really well-judged as well (at one point I found myself watching some of the background dancers performing very simple, repetitive movements of the kind that I make at my flat every single day).
Any problems? Hardly any. If I was to be forced to be picky I’d say some of Poppy and Nikki’s scenes in the second half dragged a bit for me. During these scenes I found myself yearning for the show to bring another of its strands back to act as a contrast to their story — as happens in many other parts of the musical — or failing that just hit us with another song. Also, one character’s reference to Sheffield being a City of Sanctuary felt slightly too on the nose. The story of the Liberian family who come to Sheffield to escape civil war makes this point well enough, so it didn’t need to be spelled out. But these are the mildest of complaints. At the end, the almost full auditorium gave the cast a deserved standing ovation.
In the bar before the show, I looked out of the window at Park Hill, its individual flats lit up against the night sky and the neon “I Love You Will U Marry Me” sign shining brightly in the darkness. The two buildings deliberately face each other across the Sheaf Valley, and act as bookends for a period of Sheffield’s postwar history that was characterised by a confidence and optimism that doesn’t exactly match our prevailing national mood.
As the musical makes painfully clear in parts, that vision for Park Hill didn’t entirely work out. But the history of the Crucible theatre itself tells a different story. When its first artistic director Colin George created the theatre, he fought both the theatrical establishment and conservative politicians in Sheffield to build a modern auditorium that he hoped would put the Crucible on a par with the best in the world. In Standing at the Sky’s Edge, it feels like they’ve created exactly the kind of ambitious, important and moving show that has repaid that gamble.