Review: Standing at the Sky’s Edge

Two things consistently guaranteed to generate public interest in Sheffield: Park Hill flats and Richard Hawley. Combine the two then throw in another local icon such as the Crucible Theatre and you’ve got Standing at the Sky’s Edge – one of the most highly-anticipated Sheffield Theatres shows in, well, probably ever.

As a sellout crowd took to their seats, the ever-contentious brutalist housing complex stood just a few hundred yards away, stoically observing proceedings and illuminated by a large Kid Acne artwork promoting the musical’s premiere. During the press day earlier this month, Sheffield Theatres artistic director Robert Hastie said of the show “It couldn’t get more Sheffield” – and it took roughly twenty minutes of viewing to realise just how right he was.

The set designed by Ben Stones was without a doubt one of the most impressive ever seen at the Crucible. A full corner block of Park Hill served as the main eyepiece, housing a seven-piece band behind one the walkways. Most of the action took place in and around the living space representing one of the apartments, while extras portraying residents going about everyday life could often be seen navigating the concrete structure in the background.

Harry and Rose. Image: Johan Persson

The story provides an insight into life on the estate during three separate time periods. In the 1960s we see ambitious steelworker Harry and his wife Rose gleefully exploring their brand new apartment, grateful to escape the slum housing elsewhere in the city and filled with optimism for the future. The 1980s introduces us to Joy and her family, escaping war-torn Liberia and arriving to a Park Hill complex plagued with violence and crime. Move forward to 2016 and London high-flyer Poppy is escaping a toxic relationship down south by moving into the recently gentrified Urban Splash development.

Naturally, a big pull to the show was the Hawley-penned soundtrack. His is a back-catalogue made for such a musical, and even though some songs may feel a tad wedged in at times, the soaring melodies and revolving themes of love, hope and longing perfectly reflect the life-changing scenarios played out onstage.

Image: Johan Persson

The estate’s controversial past and present isn’t skirted around in favour of easy viewing. A bleak look into the social decay that lent the building its notoriety during the 80s and 90s alongside critiques of its switch from social housing to privately-owned flats are explored with just the right amount of sensitivity and balance. The overriding question of what makes a good home is revisited throughout; and it would appear that it isn’t a skyline view, a fancy waste disposal system, or easy access to halloumi skewers – it’s people, their stories, and how the spaces we live in serve as a theatre for the trials and tribulations we all face throughout life. Suffice to say, with 60 years of social change etched into its walls, such auditoriums don’t come much grander than Park Hill.

Words: Joseph Food

Sheffield Theatres: Standing at the Sky’s Edge | Park Hill: Looking Forward, Moving Back

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