National Theatre, Olivier – until 25 March 2023
It’s an architectural moment. Within the stark brutalist NT is a set in homage to a brutalist landmark: the early 1960s Park Hill Flats in Sheffield, the largest listed building in the world. Three generations of tenants interweave in the clean-lined kitchen and living room, ghosts in one another’s lives, telling in their very existence a universal story of postwar British cities.
First the Stanhopes, thrilled by the modern kitchen, glad to be clear of the leaking, rat-ridden slums below, hoping for a baby, Harry thrilled to be made the youngest foreman ever in the steelworks. Then, 29 years later here’s the building ageing, crime-ridden and poorly tended, housing refugees from Liberia who are warned always to lock the front door. Roll on 25 years more, and, after sale to private developers (it was too listed to demolish!) Park Hill has been renovated and smartened up, and Poppy, quintessential yuppie digital exec, flees a broken heart in London (“its toxic”) and moves into the same flat – “It’s a split-level duplex!” She snaps defensively as her parents (very funny) settle her in with a middle-England political worry about politics: “They do tend to get a bit red this far north.”
There are some excellent, very local jokes (I went with my Sheffield-born husband), notably about Henderson’s Relish (“the h is silent’), which of course the first couple know all about, the African refugees find a surprising relief from the awful blandness of English food, and Poppy of 2015 is given as a flatwarming present by her amiable colleague Marcus. The show won “best new musical” when it launched at the Crucible, and winding through it like gobbets of Henderson’s Relish are the soulful Britpop songs of Sheffield’s legendary Richard Hawley, who co-created it with Chris Bush.
There are some spectacular musical moments, solo and ensemble with this big, heartfelt cast: the first half ends with “Storm a-coming” as history rolls on to threaten industrial decline, and some of the quieter ones in the second act are beautiful. There’s a problem for me though (it won’t be one for hardline Hawley fans, for the singing is terrific). This is simply that there are far too many big and quite long numbers, and often they break the golden rule of musicals by simply not moving the story on, but interrupting it.
And the story is terrific, Britain’s tale: from the roof descend lit signs telling you of the year, as critical elections loom. The personal anger and decline of poor Harry the steelworker (Robert Lonsdale) is superbly done, and so are the resentments, confusions and yearnings of the youngest refugee Joy (Faith Omole). Sometimes a song actually infuriates. For instance, just as we are getting a historic frisson of reality in being shown how passionately some hoped for a Kinnock government and a bright new Jerusalem, we are thrown into a long torch-song. It’s by Poppy’s modern lesbian lover who wants to come back to her.
That is the other problem, perhaps an unavoidable one: each group has some big crisis and trouble , but there’s an embarrassing and perhaps intentional imbalance.. The 1960 steelworks couple face the hideous waste of skills and people in the ’80’s industrial strikes, job losses and humiliations of the unions. It’s real. The Liberian family are refugees, working hard to make a life despite homesickness and fear (Joy’s parents are still out there). It’s real. But Poppy, despite Alex Young’s likeability and humour, has property and a job even when she has to go freelance, and only romantic and modern issues about love and identity to confront. Hashtag, Firstworldproblems. Yes, theyre real to her, but a bit less to us.
The one moment when this awkward imbalance is addressed is rather brilliant though: in the second half a new year party sees Connie the estate agent and overall narrator attending a party for Poppy’s friends, and when the ex-lover Nicky crashes it suffering from resentment because she hasn’t got money or a flat like Poppy, there’s a shouting match about how Connie the estate agent was one of the original tenants but now real working class people like her had been forced to make way for the renovation and rich private owners of today. Connie (Bobbie Little) sharply skewers this romantic-socialism. She’f fine. “We moved on. That’s what people do. I’ve got a garden and a dog and sash windows!”.
Could have done with more of that, and more development of the characters’ stories rather than the weight of big numbers. But it’s an achievement, a proper story, and one born well away from London, so honour to it. But by the way, Mr Rush, you don’t get a free pass for having a character say “You and your Richard Curtis bullshit!”. Not while at that moment they are right in the middle of a classic Richard-Curtis dash to reconciliation. Even if it takes place on a balcony not at an airport.
Box office. Nationaltheatre.org.uk. To 25 March