Review: Standing at the Sky’s Edge, Gillian Lynne Theatre

Standing at the Sky’s Edge brings another dash of its Henderson’s Relish-flavoured musical theatre brilliance to the Gillian Lynne Theatre

“There’s a heart that’s breaking
I think it’s mine”

Standing at the Sky’s Edge’s path to the West End may have taken a while but each step has been measured by considerable success, from runs in its native Sheffield to the National Theatre last year, building the platform for what will hopefully be a fruitful time at the Gillian Lynne Theatre. Given the setting of the show in the brutalist concrete of Sheffield’s Park Hill estate, it’s actually the perfect theatre for it to transfer to, you can’t imagine it fitting into any of the older, more traditional West End houses.

Ben Stones’s multi-level set design is a sight to behold from the moment you walk into the theatre. Filling the stage, housing the band over two levels and stretching up high, it provides the openness needed for Chris Bush’s book to play out over its three time-periods. In 1960, a steelworker and his wife move into a flat; in 1989, Liberian refugees flee civil war and are housed in that same flat; in 2015, a heartbroken woman looks for a new start in, you’ve guessed it, the same flat, albeit newly-redeveloped.

Bush plots out their stories at the same time, Robert Hastie’s direction doing a marvellous job of interweaving the three strands with real fluidity on the stage, yet maintaining a distinct clarity so we always know when we are. The politics and economics of each moment is an undoubted backdrop as the estate goes through rise, decline and gentrification over the decades, but the focus on the human detail is the real winner as we get to witness how those larger events impact individual lives.

Richard Hawley’s songs form a mighty soundtrack for the storytelling, their real timelessness meaning they slot in regardless of where we are in the timeline. Arranged with a masterful touch by Tom Deering, they add pulsing psychological detail whether in punchy solos (Rachael Wooding’s ‘After the Rain’, Lauryn Redding’s ‘Open Up Your Door’) or spine-tingling ensemble numbers (the stunning Act 1 closer ‘There’s a Storm A-Comin”, the equally rousing Act 2 opener ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’).

Echoing the focus on community, Lynne Page’s choreography creates real beauty from the humblest of everyday movements to further elevate the material. And in a company which combines returnees with new cast members, there’s no weak links. Wooding and Joel Harper-Jackson track the devastating impact of industrial decline, Elizabeth Ayodele’s Joy stands as the beating heart of so much especially where Samuel Jordan’s gorgeously nuanced Jimmy is concerned, and Laura Pitt-Pulford shimmers as the emotionally bruised Poppy, unsure if reconnecting with Redding’s Nikki is the way forward. Super stuff.

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