‘Deep wells of emotional resonance roll out into the audience’: STANDING AT THE SKY’S EDGE – National Theatre

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National Theatre, Olivier – until 25 March 2023

It is still a relatively rare experience to see a working class drama that invests its characters with a profound and complex, even a poetic interior, life, but from the first moments of Richard Hawley and Chris Bush’s Standing At the Sky’s Edge when a workman stops to greet the beauty of the dawn and the sound of birdsong, it is clear that this is no ordinary representation of

Working class life. Set on what was a council estate in Sheffield, Park Hill, where the last residents were lured out in the early 2000s, Hawley and Bush’s musical imagines three stories lived across 60 years in one flat and the changing social and political circumstances that affects the individual lives during their time as residents as well as the changing face of Britain during this period. Most importantly, the writers invest each of these scenarios with a deep and wide-ranging humanity supported by Hawley’s often soulful composition that gives these working class lives both resonance and significance in ways that theatre rarely manages to achieve.

What gives purpose to these stories is the changing political climate and the governmental elections that decisively shape the fortunes of the residents of Park Hill as well as the broader decline of the physical structure in which they are contained, noting the shifting patterns of Sheffield itself.

It opens with the optimism of people moving into their new homes in 1960, 1989 and 2015, enjoying the promise that this opportunity to begin a new life brings, yet the clock soon ticks forward, eating up the years and taking each set of characters to the eve of a Conservative election victory in 1979, 1992 and 2017 that shatter these expectations and facilitate the social ruin of a once happy and desirable estate.

By the 21st century, time and policy has erased the Working Class tenants, turning the building into a commercial endeavour sold to wealthier escapees from London, dulling the social history of this both illustrious and notorious location. Aligning crisis moments in the lives of the inhabitants with these decisive political changes is effective and affecting in a story that reflects the state of the nation at key moments since the Second World War and the ultimately disastrous effects of Conservative governments on ordinary people who in class, wealth and geography are far from the seat of power. But these themes are subtly woven through Act Two as time moves on again to the end of 1986, 2005 and 2019 where the consequences of personal and political decisions play-out.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge is lightly navigated by a narrator, the Estate Agent who introduces the final resident Poppy to her now chic brutalist home, a device used to coincide with the changes of years, helping to move the audience’s understanding along, the infrequency of which gives the role a Greek chorus feel able to step back from the day-to-day dramas the characters are living through to make more explicit or ominous statements about the changing face of Sheffield and its potential consequences for the residents of Park Hill. It works in a similar way to the Narrator in Blood Brothers, deepening this sense of the profundity and importance of working class lives that Hawley’s lyrics in particular evoke.

Directed by Robert Hastie and performed on a semi-staged set by Ben Stones, the action takes place simultaneously in the living room and kitchen of a flat, one space which all three residents occupy at the same time but decades apart, allowing scenes and stories to overlap while occasional activity from the wider estate bleeds in through the invisible walls. Choreographer Lynne Page uses these moments to create the bustle of multiple lives happening side-by-side with residents passing by, above and around, a changing community that surrounds the inhabitants of this particular flat which gives a sense of scale to Standing at the Sky’s Edge by adding an unexpected macro non-verbal texture to the micro stories that Hawley and Bush create.

And this is an unusual production in other ways, particularly in the presentation and style of the musical numbers which largely eschew traditional forms of presentation. Songs are incorporated into the narrative with characters singing their troubles in the moment essentially to themselves – few of the numbers here are duets by couples sharing feelings with one another and instead unrelated characters reflect on similar emotional experiences across different eras simultaneously along with a wider ensemble representing a community of similar feeling. But musical numbers are also presented directly to the audience sung with stand microphones in which the character steps out of the scenario to perform a concert solo of their feelings

This approach asks the audience to think less about the drama of the story and to see the specific character for who they are, giving their lives the profound and poetic importance that Hawley and Bush seek. All of the principals have at least one solo moment and even in ensemble numbers, such as the beautiful title song that opens Act Two with everyone on stage, there is a sense that they are all singing a solo at the same time telling us that these are important, meaningful lives. Hawley’s musical choices only underscore that notion with deeply soulful melodies and even a bluesy feel that is so rarely applied to Working Class lives on stage but creates deep wells of emotional resonance that roll out into the audience.

The three stories, all connected by the pursuit and changing experience of love, are variably engaging and with six decades to cover in the two hour and 50-minute running time, there isn’t always enough space to really explore each individual in sufficient detail across the three eras they experience. The most affecting of these is the middle story starting in 1989 when Joy (beautifully voiced by Faith Omole) comes to live in the UK with her aunt and cousin, given a flat on the Park Hill estate where she worries for the safety of her parents who may face war at home while she endures racist taunts from the local boys. But it is the meeting with former Park Hill resident Jimmy (a charming Samuel Jordan) that soon proves the heart of this story as a tender emotion develops between them despite having so much in the way.

But we are soon in John Osborne territory, at least in the first Act, as their story starts to echo Epitaph For George Dillon (co-written with Antony Creighton), as this Working Class couple filled with aspiration and hope for the future, of the possibility of getting out of the, by now insalubrious, Park Hill estate is inevitably trapped by fate into surrendering all those dreams and living the same life as everyone else. This is particularly affecting in Act Two having followed their path for several years, when Jimmy sings of feeling trapped, of wanting to escape and leave it all behind, something he barely has the courage to do. Turning down a chance to leave in Act One, this recurring desire to reassert his true self is very moving, but he loves his now wife and can’t let her down leaving him deeply and affectingly torn between seizing the chance to be more and quietly accepting he must subsume himself into his family life.

Joy too endures the same trajectory although she is more accepting of the life she develops, scaling down her own dreams to support her marriage and trying to be happy with what she has. The connection between Joy and Jimmy is lovely, developing from a shy childhood meeting to a fear of losing one another and a genuinely happy relationship despite the financial and emotional compromises the couple make to keep their life together afloat. There are big consequences for Joy that make this the most effective of the stories, understanding more about the sacrifices of self imposed on Working Class lives by circumstances that these individuals must then live with.

The middle tale follows couple Rose and Harry, newlyweds who move into Park Hill in its heyday from the slums, filled with the optimism that 1960s social housing was designed to inspire. Initially, there is little to this couple, they are blissfully happy in their relationship and their home, and while they struggle to conceive, Hawley and Bush don’t really get under the skin of the pair until much later in the show when the arrival of Margaret Thatcher brings the closure of the steel factory where Harry (Robert Lonsdale) works, striking miner friends that they support and long-term unemployment that puts a strain on their marriage after 20 years of relative contentment. It is the most overtly political strand of Standing at the Sky’s Edge that, like Mickey in Blood Brothers, looks at the consequences for men like Harry driven to inertia and alcoholism by the removal of whole industries and any opportunity to find alternative work.

This is also an era in which the social decay of the Park Hill estate, begins the underfunded consequences of which begin to affect the residents during the Act One finale, showing the dilapidation and deterioration of the physical estate and the social fabric that had kept the houseproud inhabitants invested in maintaining their environment. One of the show’s best moments places the future Jimmy and Harry side-by-side at home feeling the same sense of dislocation and abandonment many years apart as notions of masculine providers shifts the burden of supporting the household, leaving both with an aching despair about the lives they now endure.

Rose’s character is less well investigated, a surface housewife for much of the show, she is a sweet and likeable woman but the audience learns little about her life beyond, where she came from and what she wanted from life. But Rose gets her moment, a heartbreaking song, movingly performed by Rachael Wooding, when facing the consequences of all those political impacts on her marriage when she opens her heart to the audience. The loss she expresses is deeply felt and consuming, reiterating the depth and meaning within Working Class lives that drama so often overlooks.

The final strand is the least believable, a contemporary story of a Middle Class character Poppy who moves from London to escape a broken relationship and, much to the consternation of her mother, moves into the now renovated flat where she builds a new life but refuses or is unable to move on from her former partner Nikki who inevitably turns up. The story is well performed by Alex Young as Poppy while Maimuna Memon as Nikki provides an extraordinary vocal, but this character faces none of the external shaping that so meaningfully affects the other women who front this musical. Poppy may get caught up in some angst about whether the wealthy deserve to buy former Working Class homes but much of her self-focused introspection feels generic. It means she is presented in the way that theatre always sees Middle Class women, blandly drinking wine alone and feeling sorry for herself in what we assume is an expensive kitchen. Even her conclusion works against the determined independence that Poppy has insisted upon throughout – it certainly feels like some of these stereotypes need updating.

The bright and breezy opening section of Standing at the Sky’s Edge grows into a rich and layered piece about communities shaped by their external landscape as well as their own desires and aspirations. It invests Working Class stories with a meaning and purpose that, as Harry insists, asks you to see their individuality, the hope and pain, of good people doing their best. That Hawley and Bush allow their characters to express all of that in such a soulful way is their biggest achievement and this co-production, transferring from Sheffield to the National Theatre, gives the writers an even greater platform to present the vast humanity of Working Class lives as they really are.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge runs at the National Theatre until 25 March with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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Maryam Philpott on RssMaryam Philpott on Twitter
Maryam Philpott
Maryam Philpott has run the London-based Cultural Capital blog since 2013, predominantly reviewing theatre, but also exhibitions and special film screenings with a more in-depth and discursive approach. Since 2014, Maryam has also written regularly for The Reviews Hub, reviewing all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End, as well as contemporary dance, ballet and opera. She has a background in social and cultural history, and tweets as @culturalcap1.

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Maryam Philpott on RssMaryam Philpott on Twitter
Maryam Philpott
Maryam Philpott has run the London-based Cultural Capital blog since 2013, predominantly reviewing theatre, but also exhibitions and special film screenings with a more in-depth and discursive approach. Since 2014, Maryam has also written regularly for The Reviews Hub, reviewing all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End, as well as contemporary dance, ballet and opera. She has a background in social and cultural history, and tweets as @culturalcap1.

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