Review: Standing at the Sky’s Edge, National Theatre

Soul-stirring ensemble work at its best, Sheffield-based musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge is a real triumph at the National Theatre

“People used to come from miles around to chuck themselves off ’ere”

Standing at the Sky’s Edge was a big hit for the Crucible back in 2019 so it is great to see that plans for a revival survived the pandemic and after returning to Sheffield last year, it now transfers to London to occupy the Olivier stage at the National Theatre as a truly thrilling piece of new British musical theatre. A soaring work that hits the mark, it is also one of those shows that you can recommend to people who say they don’t like musicals…

For the score is by singer-songwriter Richard Hawley and often, Robert Hastie’s glorious production has the company just delivering these moodily excellent songs in quasi-concert style, an evocation of highly charged atmosphere as the musical works through 60 years of the shifts in society through the prism of the Park Hill estate. Some numbers are folded in book-style to the three parallel narratives to amp up certain points of emotive storytelling and the whole mixture is just mesmerising.

Chris Bush’s book tracks the stories that take place in the same flat in three time-periods: in 1960, a young steelworker and his wife move in; in 1989, a schoolgirl and her cousins flee wartorn Liberia; in 2015, a middle-class, middle-aged professional woman seeks a new start. And as the years progress, we follow their fortunes, along with the rise, decline and then gentrification of the estate itself, a microcosm of who we are as a nation, told through the intimacy of individual lives.

So much here works so gloriously well. Ben Stones’ brutalist design dominates magisterially, with its cheeky flash of neon too; his costume work also helps delineate characters from different time periods as they swirl together. Lynne Page’s choreography is a breathless delight throughout and the muscularity of John Rutledge’s musical direction means that when an electric guitar appears, not even my delicate string-loving soul minded.

You might wish that Bush hadn’t included an extraneous narrator and not plumped for quite so much crowdpleasing elements but the heartwarming nature of it all proves irresistible. Led by stunning work in each era from Rachael Wooding, Faith Omole and Alex Young, with great supporting turns from Robert Lonsdale, Samuel Jordan and Maimuna Memon amid a cracking company, it’s an absolute triumph of a show.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Johan Persson
Standing at the Sky’s Edge is booking at the National Theatre until 25th March

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