Standing at the Sky’s Edge: a deeply moving, monumental musical that really matters

Standing at the Sky's Edge
Standing at the Sky's Edge - Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

The transfer of Standing at the Sky’s Edge from the Sheffield Crucible to the National last year demonstrated that the most parochial-sounding thing – a musical centred on Park Hill, a housing estate overlooking the UK’s ‘steel’ city – could up sticks and win hearts down south. The show, utilising the back-catalogue of renowned local singer-songwriter Richard Hawley, as woven into a socio-political epic by local playwright Chris Bush, won the Olivier award for Best New Musical and another for its orchestrations.

There was something neat about the National – a monument to brutalist architecture – housing an evening in which that uncompromising post-war style is writ large. One flat – viewed across a plethora of moments, between 1960 to 2020, and taking in three sets of occupants – becomes a microcosm of British society: initial high hopes in the Sixties plummet to earth as de-industrialisation takes hold, 21st-century gentrification offering a contentious way forward, commodifying the original idealism.

Moving the show to the West End might conceivably look like a commercially risky step too far, but there’s something about the defiant boldness of that assault on theatreland together with the apt concrete aesthetic of the Gillian Lynne that makes the show seem at home on its own terms.

Hawley’s folkish rock music is wonderfully unembarrassed about raw emotion – his beautiful songs full of melancholy, tenderness, warmth and yearning, hammering at the door of your heart, demanding to be let in. Bush harnesses that ardency to show love flowering amid shifting, difficult circumstances, so that the existing songs alternately articulate individual predicaments and speak to wider communal experience.

With Mel Lowe’s estate agent Connie acting as a narrator whose relation to the connected narratives becomes clearer, we’re introduced to a steel-worker (Joel Harper-Jackson’s Harry) and his wife (Rachel Wooding’s Rose), the first, delighted occupants, whose union will be tested to destruction by the ill-wind of economic change. A generation on, a young Liberian refugee called Joy (Elizabeth Ayodele) battles with a more menacing environment, redeemed by the overtures of Samuel Jordan’s lanky Jimmy. Bringing us into the regeneration era is middle-class southerner Poppy (a gorgeous-voiced Laura Pitt-Pulford) trying to leave her past, and lesbian lover, behind, only for the latter to track her down.

Lauryn Redding as Nikki and Laura Pitt-Pulford as Poppy
Lauryn Redding as Nikki and Laura Pitt-Pulford as Poppy - Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Too schematic by half? Well, Alan Ayckbourn has given us no less contrivance in his time. Even so, it can feel like Bush is piling too much into the same confined space, however deftly handled by director Robert Hastie, and the piece has a hermetic quality even if the point is made that the estate moves from being a panoramic refuge to a prison. Some of the off-beat choreographic flourishes can look a bit ‘Legs & Co’ too.

Still, it’s so beautiful to listen to, and rises to such rousing peaks, that if – as with the estate itself – you embrace it warts and all, it’s hard to feel anything other than enriched and often deeply moved by it. It offers rare intellectual and emotional ambition, songs that should stay with you, and sustain you, over a lifetime; and frankly deserves to be a huge hit.

Booking to Aug 3. Tickets: