'Standing at the Sky's Edge' review – this British musical triumph feels right at home in the West End

Read our review of Standing at the Sky's Edge, by Chris Bush and Richard Hawley, now in performances at the Gillian Lynne Theatre to 3 August.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

If home is defined not by a place but by the people you love, then my new theatrical home is the Gillian Lynne, the West End venue lucky enough to land Standing at the Sky’s Edge. I adored this musical, which began at the Sheffield Crucible, when I last saw it at the National Theatre, and it’s only grown stronger since. I predict a long and glorious life in this new home.

Robert Hastie’s (rightly) Olivier Award-winning production benefits not only from Richard Hawley’s soul-stirring songs, but from a notably excellent book by Chris Bush. Her clever, precise, poignant and laugh-out-loud funny script tracks three generations of inhabitants at Sheffield’s iconic Park Hill Estate, showing a changing Britain along the way, but always putting people before politics.

In 1960, we meet loved-up working-class couple Harry and Rose. They’re struggling to conceive, but otherwise life is good: Harry’s on track to become the youngest-ever foreman at his steel works, and they’re thrilled to land this new social housing – the dream of the “streets in the sky”.

By 1989 Park Hill is rundown and dangerous, but it’s still a sanctuary for Joy and her older cousins, who have fled Liberia. Fast-forward again to 2015 and the controversially gentrified estate is now a “fresh start” for middle-class Londoner Poppy – she’s recovering from a messy break-up with fiancée Nikki.

Bush weaves in significant national events, including elections and a mention of the economically ruinous Brexit, while one moving sequence sees the striking miners go back to work amid a decimated community. But the real gift of this special show is how it makes the small moments in our everyday lives feel monumental – even more now, writ large in a West End theatre.

Bush builds her characters with such care and warmth, until they all feel like family. We roll our eyes along with Poppy as her mother frets about her surviving Sheffield (“Can you get Ocado up here?”), and it’s impossible not to root for the gently developing romance between Joy and local lad Jimmy.

Among the fantastic new cast members, Laura Pitt-Pulford brings exquisite vocals and wistful, deeply affecting vulnerability to Poppy, evident even beneath the fractious humour. Her journey to acceptance, and self-acceptance, is beautifully drawn. Wonderful too is Elizabeth Ayodele as the ardent, courageous Joy, who likewise opens herself up to a new world.

Lauryn Redding makes a growling rock-star showstopper out of “Open Up Your Door”, and gives Nikki a charismatic blend of belligerent Scouse swagger and raw emotion. Joel Harper-Jackson makes you feel every part of Harry’s tragic downfall – from passionate, confident provider to a bitter, fearful man stripped of all dignity and purpose.

Samuel Jordan reprises his tender, touchingly naïve Jimmy, and Baker Mukasa his kindly optimistic George. Rachael Wooding remains an absolute powerhouse as Rose, who finds surprising reserves of strength as Harry slips away from her.

Throughout, Hawley’s evocative songs (superbly arranged by Tom Deering) enrich and deepen the drama – from aching heartbreakers through to the mighty title number, which opens Act II in barnstorming fashion. Ben Stones’s striking multi-level design places us in that landmark Brutalist building, while leaving plenty of playing space.

Although this is a love letter to Sheffield and its community (Henderson’s relish gets a cameo role), Bush articulates the opposing argument too: that your hometown can sometimes be a trap, and you might need to leave to grow. Likewise, she gives us swooning declarations of love, yet has an exasperated Poppy call out the grand-gesture-profferring Nikki’s “Richard Curtis bullshit”.

It’s that mix of earthy humour and starry-eyed hope, gritty realism and heartfelt empathy which gives Bush and Hawley’s homegrown hit its unique and utterly beguiling identity. The sky’s the limit for this total triumph of a British musical.

Standing at the Sky's Edge is at the Gillian Lynne Theatre through 3 August. Book Standing at the Sky's Edge tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Standing at the Sky's Edge (Photo by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg)

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