Standing at the Sky's Edge

It’s rare to see an original musical open in the West End. It’s rare to associate the National Theatre with (popular) musicals at all.

Standing head and shoulders above your typical West End musical

And then, both rarities are disproven. Twice. In the space of a week.

Hot on the heels of Hadestown comes the West End transfer of Standing at the Sky’s Edge to the Gillian Lynne Theatre.

Last seen on the National’s Olivier stage, but with roots very firmly fixed in its Sheffield origins, Standing at the Sky’s Edge now aims to show it has global appeal.

For the past year, when asked for a theatre recommendation, my immediate reply has always been Standing at the Sky’s Edge. I loved the show’s originality, was drawn in by its musicality, and shed more than a few tears at its emotional journey.

But that was a year ago. I’m aware that the remembering can make the experiencing seem more positive than it was.

To refresh my memory – and with all the wisdom of reading an ex’s early WhatsApp’s – I re-read my review.

I wrote, “The most phenomenally strong voices you’re likely to hear outside a concert.” I sadly noted most of the cast has changed for this new production.

I wrote, “The Olivier stage looks like it has been created for the sole purpose of housing Ben Stones’ set.” I sighed, remembering the cold, unwelcoming atmosphere at the Gillian Lynne Theatre.

As many have said before me, looking back is rarely a good idea.

To date, the show has had much acclaim.

At its pre- and post-Covid Sheffield Crucible runs, local audiences took it to their hearts. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given its themes are, very literally, close to home.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge is set around the development, the later destruction, and subsequent gentrification of the city’s Park Hill estate. For those living in the area, Park Hill evokes feelings of 1960s’ post-war hope, 1980s’ inner-city violence, or new millennium rebirth.

At the Crucible, the show appealed to this sense of local ownership. It played to the pride felt at it being the largest Grade II listed building in Europe.

For the National Theatre transfer, the run quickly sold out. But a (stereo)typical National Theatre-goer is more likely to be stimulated by social commentary than singalong chart hits. And politics are never far from the plot here.

At its heart are three representations of the 'family unit'. The '60s has steelworker unionist Harry (Joel Harper-Jackson) and his supportive wife Rose (Rachael Wooding). In the '80s, there's the refugees from wartorn Liberia, Joy (Elizabeth Ayodele) and her guardian cousins George (Baker Mukasa) and Grace (Sharlene Hector). And in the 10s, we've newly single, newly relocated, (possibly newly) lesbian, Poppy (Laura Pitt-Pulford).

We follow their stories concurrently as each takes residence of the same flat over three different timelines. They are all impacted by the political themes of their day: deindustrialisation and unemployment, immigration and racism, Brexit, and housing.

The National’s run benefitted from the sort of political comment that makes many NT members moist.

Local passions and political beliefs are all well and good. But with no film plotline, no Nicole Scherzinger lead, no French gymnast welcoming you to your seat, what does Standing at the Sky’s Edge have to offer a West End audience?

Seeing it at its new home with these fresh eyes made the answer clear.

It has a hell of a lot.

It has scale.

Ben Stones’ design seems to have replanted its roots into the walls and floors of the cavernous Gillian Lynne and then grown out of it, like some kind of theatrical Virginia creeper.

The Park Hill estate is a sprawling mass of concrete blocks, balconies and walkways that fill every corner of the stage. The addition of a stairway and a second balcony adds to the panoramic vista that makes you feel like you're watching in IMAX.

Using all this space makes the cast seems larger, though they number the same as at the National. The supernumeraries (or swings) ooze on and off stage - sometimes extending into the auditorium. They move with balletic repetition as time passes and tensions grow. They bring oomph to music numbers that literally makes the floor shake.

It has power.

The music of Richard Hawley may seem an odd choice to backdrop a musical, but this couldn’t be further from the typical definition of 'jukebox'. For a start, there’s none of the awkwardly manipulated dialogue such shows often use to segue into musical numbers, like:

- “But, where are you going?”

- “To the top of the hill. I want to be nearer the sky.”

- “Be careful. Don’t go too near to the edge. And, Margie, whatever you do, don’t sit down."

- “Don’t worry Bobby, I won’t. I’m just going to be…" (as intro music swells…)

Instead, Hawley’s songs act as comment, higlighting the emotions of the scenes. Actors often stand outside their characters, mic in hand, giving powerful renditions of what were once songs of male angst, now recreated for stage impact.

At times, they have an infectious energy you tap your foot to. The excitement of promise is soundtracked by “Time Is,” led by Samuel Jordan: one of two returning leads, and still “a tender lost soul with a rock-star voice” I could listen to for a whole album.

At times, they have an emotional ache that will break your heart into tiny pieces. I defy anyone not to choke back a tear when hearing “After the Rain” – the song Hawley wrote for Shirley Bassey – sung by Rachael Wooding. Wooding is the second returning lead and, to my mind, the very heart, soul and standout star in this star-filled show.

And it has a gentle intimacy.

Against the vast setting and powerful numbers, the stories it tells are touchingly simple. They're all the stronger for being so. Resonant of the best kitchen sink or soap drama, we quickly take these characters into our hearts. We laugh at their jokes, hope for their loves, cry with their disappointments.

There are enough references to Yorkshire – football and food play their part – to give the characters a very local grounding. But that adds to, rather than detracts from, their global relatability. There are comparisons to be made with that other 'local global' show, Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. Both are very clearly and necessarily location-specific. But both have themes recognisable to everybody, no matter your proximity to events.

And like Blood Brothers, you’re unlikely to leave the show with a bounce in your step. Hope is definitely the key takeout here: “hope that kills you but also keeps you alive.”

In short, unlike with the ex, I needn’t have worried about going back. And neither should you. Seeing Standing at the Sky’s Edge again has reinforced my view that the deserved winner of last year’s Olivier for Best New Musical has everything a good musical needs.

And then some.

Whether you’ve seen it at the National, in Sheffield, or not at all, I urge you to go see it at its new home.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge is standing head and shoulders above your typical West End musical. This show deserves to run and run and run.

Visit Show Website

Reviews by Simon Ximenez

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Performances

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The Blurb

The multi-award winning new musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge – winner of the Olivier Award for Best New Musical, UK Theatre Award for Best Musical Production, and the South Bank Sky Arts Award – transfers to the West End following sold-out runs at the National Theatre and Sheffield Theatres.

Hailed as ‘the most exciting new British musical in years’ (WhatsOnStage), Standing at the Sky’s Edge was originally written as a love letter to Sheffield, charting the hopes and dreams of three generations over the course of six tumultuous decades, navigating universal themes of love, loss and survival.

Directed by Sheffield Theatres’ Artistic Director Robert Hastie, with irresistible songs of legendary singer-songwriter Richard Hawley and a beautiful, hilarious and gut-wrenching book by Chris Bush, Standing at the Sky’s Edge reveals the history of modern Britain through the stories of the landmark housing estate – a heartfelt exploration of the power of community and what it is we all call home.  

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