Sheffield Theatres is unquestionably cementing its position at the forefront of British theatre today. It has already stormed the West End with Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – a musical success about a teenage boy from a Sheffield council estate who is banned from school prom for dressing in drag. Now The Crucible presents a new musical set on a different estate: the iconic Park Hill flats.
Perched high above the train station, you can’t miss the Brutalist flats that have dominated Sheffield’s skyline to the east of the city centre. In Standing at The Sky’s Edge, writer Chris Bush weaves three stories all set in one flat over the estate’s complex 60 year history. There is Harry (Robert Lonsdale) and Rose (Rachael Wooding), a young couple in the 1960s, excited to escape slum-life and move into the new building – a utopian project to address the city’s housing problem. By 1989, however, the estate had declined and gained a poor reputation. New residents were difficult to attract as the building emptied, and, in the play, the flat becomes home for young Liberian refugee Joy (Faith Omole) and her extended family. Fast-forward to 2016 and a lot has changed: saved from demolition by its Grade II* listing from English Heritage, Park Hill has been purchased by property developer Urban Splash and regenerated into trendy new flats – or “split-level duplex” – as the play’s final inhabitant, Poppy (Alex Young), is hasten to correct her father while she moves in having fled heartbreak in London.
The musical’s cast is certainly large, including members of Sheffield People’s Theatre, but Ben Stone’s modest grey set prevents the show being overwhelmed – rather the lively inhabitants provide all the colour. They are expertly choreographed by Lynn Page to create the “streets in the sky” – the communal walkways built to encourage neighbours to interact as they might on a regular street. The multiple characters, often occupying the stage space at the same time in their respective storylines, move around the flat with ease. The overlap strengthens the interconnection of their lives, despite the changes in local history including the pit closures and decline in the steel industry.
The performance is never confused and creates a rewardingly more complex experience than had the storylines been separated. Digital clocks suspended from the ceiling display the different years. The estate agent, Connie (Nicole Deon), acts as a sort of poetic narrator as the decade pass – her own story hidden within all three narratives.
Bush has avoided the trap of depending on Park Hill’s history, instead using the building as a platform to create three unique stories. The strongest are those of the three female protagonists – Rose, Joy and Poppy – whose charismatic performances bring together a perfect blend of humour and emotion. Young in particular is hilarious as Poppy, a young, upper-middle class women with a worrying obsession for all things Ocado and gluten-free. Bush has not created a caricature millennial however, instead she uses Poppy and her parents (a mother who fears her leaving London, and a father who fetishises the Brutalism of her new home) to give a new perspective on the North-South divide.
However, with such a large cast and over half a century to cover, Standing at the Sky’s Edge struggles to give all the plotlines equal development. In particular, there is a disappointing lack of depth to Harry who descend from cocky and confident (“youngest steelworks foreman in history”) in the sixties to unemployment and broken a decade later. His mental breakdown is given little attention or reasoning beyond political alienation under Thatcher. Rather he serves as an aid in the development of Rose’s character; the focus is on how his breakdown affects her, leaving no space for us to empathise with him.
Still, these faults fall away whenever the music starts. The show is masterfully built around songs from local legend Richard Halwey – a mixture of revamped tunes from his back catalogue and new material written for the show. Orchestrated by Tom Deering and Will Stuart, the score is delivered by a seven-piece band which sits high up, set back from the balcony overlooking the flat below. There is an excellent mixture of solos and large cast harmonies. From the aptly-named “There’s a Storm A-comin’” closing the action-intense final scene of Act One, to the solo of “Open Up Your Door”, beautifully sung by Poppy’s ex-lover Nikki (Maimuna Memon) when she turns up uninvited at the flat.
Controversy is ingrained throughout Park Hill’s history. But director Robert Hastie is not afraid to shy away from this, in particular the estate’s redevelopment. The neon-lit “I Love You, Will U Marry Me” graffiti hangs above the stage as a reminder of Urban Splash’s ongoing work. Most recently their plan to create over 350 student homes – likely to be popular with Hallam students – in the next phase for the flats, receiving fresh criticism from social housing advocates and igniting the town vs gown debate. Still, the musical concludes in favour of change, recognising it as “progress” as Connie says, despite mocking the trendiness of repurposing social housing (“polish some concrete and get it on one series of Doctor Who”).
While Standing at the Sky’s Edge may feel very personal to Sheffield – even Henderson’s Relish gets a mention – it is more than just an ode to the city. At its core is a universal tale – a heartfelt exploration of what home means to us all.
Featured Image Credit: Johan Persson