'Standing at the Sky's Edge' review – this soul-stirring Sheffield musical is a true homegrown triumph

Read our four-star review of the London premiere of the Sheffield-based musical Standing at the Sky's Edge at the National Theatre, playing through 25 March.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

It hasn’t been the easiest time for original British musicals, so what a pleasure to welcome Standing at the Sky’s Edge – another product of the mighty Sheffield Crucible, from 2019 – into the Olivier (and quite possibly beyond: I could see this following the Crucible’s Everybody’s Talking About Jamie into the West End). Chris Bush’s show shares Jamie’s combination of quick wit, sincere storytelling and political conviction, with the added bonus of the soul-stirring music of Richard Hawley.

Our potent setting is Sheffield’s Park Hill estate, the largest listed building in Europe. We follow three sets of residents, decades apart: in 1960, working-class married couple Harry and Rose move in, both their lives and this new social housing (the “streets in the sky”) full of promise; by 1989, when Joy and her cousins settle there after fleeing Liberia, the estate has fallen into disrepair; and in 2015, heartbroken middle-class Londoner Poppy attempts a fresh start, buying one of the revamped flats – after the previous residents have been turfed out.

Although firmly, and very effectively, area specific (a bottle of Henderson’s relish gets a prominent showcase), it also acts as a microcosm of recent British history – including a sequence of election nights in each timeframe. Harry, the youngest ever foreman at his steel works, runs headlong into Thatcher, and the city’s identity is forever changed by Joy’s era. Meanwhile Poppy benefits from Park Hill’s controversial gentrification, but her job is affected by Brexit.

However, it’s the human stories that sing out in Robert Hastie’s fervent production. Robert Lonsdale tenderly captures Harry’s loss of identity and dignity, as well as his chronic self-pity, while Rachael Wooding takes Rose in the other direction: from giggly, dependent wife to a clear-eyed individual locating a newfound strength in order to survive.

Alex Young strikes a beautiful balance between cringing humour (with her Ottolenghi aubergine recipe and Yorkshire Tea gin, she’s initially a fish out of water) and raw vulnerability as she strives to rebuild herself, while the burgeoning romance between local lad Jimmy (Samuel Jordan) and the gradually acclimatising Joy (Faith Omole) is deeply affecting. Even when the script is a little too sketchy as it races through time, the cast make each beat land.

Throughout, Bush artfully weaves in Hawley’s wistful songs. But, as with the Bob Dylan-scored Girl from the North Country, this isn’t a straightforward jukebox musical. Sometimes the numbers match up neatly with the action – or even bring in Hawley’s own family story; his father was a steelworker, his mother a nurse, like two of our characters. But, most of the time, the songs convey the mood, atmosphere and emotions, speaking to a bigger truth that connects us all and capturing a whole community.

Tom Deering’s gorgeous arrangements for the cast and onstage band similarly range from the intimate to the epic. Young, an experienced musical theatre performer, is especially good at finding character specificity within Hawley’s poetic lyrics, while Wooding unleashes Rose’s pain in “After the Rain”, and Omole makes “Coles Corner” a cry for freedom. But we also get a phenomenal ensemble performance of the title number, complete with stadium-style lighting and a rocking guitar solo.

Given the skill with which these elements are fused together, it’s frustrating that Bush adds unnecessary hand-holding elements – chiefly, a rather patronising narrator who spells out the major themes. The script also overeggs its motifs, like keeping a door open or closed (literally and metaphorically!), and home being more about the people than the place. Mind, the former is almost forgivable when Maimuna Memon (in a vivid turn as Poppy’s toxic ex) belts out “Open Up Your Door” with such earth-shattering power.

Lynne Page’s choreography is thoughtfully tailored to the piece: less flashy showpieces, more expressive movement built on the everyday actions of these residents – even something as simple as laying the table. Ben Stones’s set is a clever theatrical interpretation of the hulking Brutalist estate, creating an upper level with its wide balconies, and giving us the bare bones of the interior which allows action from three eras to play simultaneously.

Of course, it speaks to today too – not least the line “Nobody wants to strike, they don’t do it for fun”, which won applause from a press-night audience. Occasionally the action is amped up artificially, particularly in the climax of the first half, and there are some intergenerational connections played too dramatically as big reveals, but you’d need a heart of stone not to be moved by this generous portrait of humanity: a true homegrown triumph.

Standing at the Sky's Edge at the Olivier Theatre through 25 March.

Photo credit: Alex Young in Standing at the Sky's Edge (Photo by Johan Persson)

Originally published on

Subscribe to our newsletter to unlock exclusive London theatre updates!

Special offers, reviews and release dates for the best shows in town.

You can unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy