Review: Standing at the Sky's Edge at the Gillian Lynne Theatre ★★★★

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

This transfer of the National Theatre hit – a heartfelt love letter to Sheffield past and present, with some fine songs from Richard Hawley – takes a deserving place in the West End musicals roster.

It’s almost eight years since the original West End run of Billy Elliot The Musical closed at the Victoria Palace Theatre, and in that time a number of home-grown musicals have come and gone with mixed success – only There’s Something About Jamie and Six have really established themselves in that time. Perhaps Standing at the Sky’s Edge could add to that count, tapping as it does into many of the same regional specificities which added resonance to both Billy Elliot and …Jamie, if perhaps lacking either the name recognition or cultural timeliness of either.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge tells three increasingly interconnected stories across three timelines: in the 1960s, working-class couple Harry and Rose (Joel Harper-Jackson & Rachael Wooding) move in to a new social housing development, Sheffield’s Park Hill; in 1989, refugee Joy (Elizabeth Ayodele) flees Liberia to live on the estate, now in a state of significant disrepair; and in 2015, middle-class London exile Poppy (Laura Pitt-Pulford) is starting life anew in the now redeveloped apartment block.

It’s not really a spoiler to suggest that there’s more linking these three strands than simply a shared location. What director Robert Hastie impressively achieves, with Lynne Page’s choreography, is a clever yet nicely understated physical interweaving of players within the shared space. Digital displays which descend from the rafters keep us on top of the shifting timelines, as each storyline shifts inexorably towards the beginning of the next. There’s a sense both of linearity playfully upended, and also an inextricable circularity, or nest of circularities.

The staging is impressively grand, but the ensemble cast is big enough not to feel drowned in concrete, as the Park Hill block stands as resolute monolith throughout. In a nice touch, the live orchestra occupies an upper floor, while key scenes take place on a mezzanine level.

The music is really excellent – these are Richard Hawley songs, after all – though the choice to have performers use handheld mics for certain numbers is a little disconcerting: as often as it succeeds (say, Lauryn Redding’s show stopping rendition of ‘Open Up Your Door’, which is a truly awesome way to make an entrance) it fails (Baker Mukasa leads an underwhelming version of ‘Tonight the Streets Are Ours’), the effect mostly being to remind us that we’re watching a show, rather than living a story.

When the mics are left behind, the songs really speak for themselves – and the cast, without exception, are in fine voice. Special mention should go to Joel Harper-Jackson, whose stunningly still ‘For Your Lover Give Some Time’ is a special, second-half moment which deserves a standing ovation all of its own.

In its political messaging, and unlike the Billy Elliot’s unapologetic Thatcher-bashing, Chris Bush’s book could be accused of wanting to have its cake and eat it too. There’s some nice, nuanced unpacking of politically managed decline and the threats of gentrification, but the really urgent questions about what has been allowed to happen to places like Park Hill (social housing gone to seed, bought up and redeveloped for profit) ultimately go unanswered. There’s some unnecessary melodrama, too, which doesn’t quite feel earned, and a sense of a great story in search of a great ending. But then again, this feels a like show for our times, peopled as it is by a diverse range of characters and voices, backgrounds and privileges. Kitchen sink this isn’t, but nor is it escapist fantasy. Real lives are on show here, told with warmth, humour and a lot of love.

Ultimately, Standing at the Sky’s Edge feels worthy of this run at the Gillian Lynne theatre on Drury Lane, which should hopefully extend beyond its current last date in August.