STANDING AT THE SKY’S EDGE
Music by Richard Hawley
Standing at the Sky’s Edge is a musical production showing at the National Theatre from the 9th of February to the 25th of March 2023 set in the Park Hill estate in Sheffield, while not being your typical setting for a musical it provides the perfect backdrop for this heartfelt performance about community, the passing of time, grief, ambition, generational trauma and above all the silent beauty and pain of love. The talent behind this production is truly breathtaking, from the set to the costume to the choreography the National Theatre has created a real gem here and regardless of whether you’re a Richard Hawley fan or if you’ve never heard of him this is a must see of the year.
The play follows three different families all of whom live in an apartment in the Park Hill estate, the first family, Rose and Harry live there in the 1960s until the 1990s when we meet our second family (Joy and her two cousins) who live there until the mid 2000s when they are asked to leave the estate. Our final storyline follows Poppy who moves to the newly gentrified apartment in 2015. The brutalist backdrop of the estate is rich with history, the sheer amount of people who lived and who still live there makes it a unique piece of architecture and it's presented as a community and a sort of cross generational legacy to be appreciated by many in the future. It houses up to 3000 people at a time and for many represents the British working class and certainly has something quintessentially British about it. The play is political at its core, covering Brexit, Harlold Wilson becoming prime minister and the implications this has for the working class, and immigration - among many other sub-themes and cultural events. The play is gritty and doesn’t gloss over the harder parts of these political events or of life but nevertheless it feels fresh and at its core is an uplifting piece which I felt the moment I sat in my seat and saw the set; not just the magic of theatre but something else, something in the lights and the shapes and in watching the band absent-mindedly tune created a buzz in the room that I haven’t felt at any theatre performance before and I can’t imagine I will for a long long time in the future.
The play was written by Chris Bush and directed by Robert Hastie. The visual aspects and artistic choices were stunning and I’ll talk more about them in a minute but you can’t overlook the artistry that went into the bones of this piece, the writing was phenomenal and I’m certainly eager to reread the script and take a closer look, it was so well cast and performed so beautifully that it was hard to believe what you were listening to was scripted. The choreography is by Lynne Page and while the energy behind the entire performance was incredible, the dancers were something else entirely, the ability to sing, act and dance simultaneously is a rare talent, but not here, every single actor, however big their role delivered an amazing performance and radiated joy and talent. And all this energy had to be upheld for three hours, but the whole thing was so amazingly gripping and entertaining it was over in the blink of an eye and from the hundreds of raving reviews of which I am just a drop in the ocean many share my experience.
The play celebrates this idea of fluidity and focuses on this strange thought that some day your house will belong to someone else and your experiences will become other people’s stories. This celebration of the mundane isn’t something I’ve often come across in theatre and it was such a breath of fresh air and such a beautiful concept. Regardless of its political implications it’s an evocative piece; delving into the themes of masculinity, feeling at home, ambition, mental health, and above all how life continues after death. Both of my parents cried watching the show and I wasn't far off myself, if I was able to see it again I would jump at the opportunity but celebrating the impermanent is something I should have learnt from the play!
This ephemeral beauty is certainly the driving force behind the play but zoom in a little and there are countless art forms collaborating to make this piece as powerful as it is. The set which can be seen above [fig.1] certainly wasn’t your conventional set up and perfectly conveyed the brutalist and industrial style of the working class, the raised level of the stage which held the orchestra had to be by far my favourite part of the entire performance, as an aspiring musician I often spend my time at shows trying to get a better look at the musicians as they’re often in a pit or a room to the side, having such a clear view is rare view for both audience and performer and what I loved was the fact they were even visible enough to see the sheer joy they got from playing and performing. It’s also a very interesting point when you consider the usual hierarchy of performers has been flipped, placing the musicians above the actors is potentially a deeper metaphor for the rising of the oppressed and working class. The costumes are another fascinating thing to explore and you can see here [fig. 2] [fig. 3] [fig. 4]. These costumes which were created by Robert Hastia and Ben Stones and again, often have a deeper meaning, they serve as a marker to the audience of what time period we’re in but they also convey a strong sense of each character, mirroring their internal struggles and life experiences whilst making each character vivid and memorable in the minds of the audience. Lighting was also a crucial part of the set and always tends to determine the vibe of these productions, blue was the overarching colour that was used throughout the dialogue and then during the musical scenes there would be an explosion of strobe light and colour. A key piece of lighting to consider is the iconic “I love you will u marry me” sign which hangs above the production the entire time, it’s a regular conversation point for all of our characters in the play and bridges the gap between the different generations we’re following in many ways. The simplicity of the set is timeless and I can’t even imagine the thought process that went into that and how crucial it is to the play to have these props that can transcend each generation while somehow feeling modern in all of them. I don’t even need to mention the music, I truly don’t, the talent of every single, singer, dancer, composer, choreographer, and of course Richard Hawley himself needs no introduction, I’m not a fan of musicals generally but when I tell you my jaw dropped when the first actor began to sing I mean it. Voices you feel in your chest and lyrics that stay with you for days and melodies that still come in and out of my head now is no easy feat but they did it, and they did it better than I’ve ever seen it done before.
The play is described as being predominantly about community and this couldn’t be more true; towards the end of the play everything begins to slot together and we learn more about the complex relationships we’ve been following and it once again emphasises the importance of relationships and connections with other people; the beautiful impermanence that is love, be it romantic or platonic. This is a play about the passing of time and how that affects relationships, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst, sometimes they end in grief and death and sometimes they create life and light and love.
The piece is obviously a profoundly cultural one and serves as a sort of homage to British resilience, emotional repression, violence, and mental health - It shows the beauty of love whilst maintaining this gritty honesty and showing how the two merge and where the lines can often sadly become blurry.
The bottom line of my review is that this play is the best production I’ve ever seen and is a work of art in every way I can imagine, it’s powerfully evocative and I would boil it down to being about fluidity and how these difficult moments in time will repeat themselves in cycles and how every time we have the chance to break these cycles, but there will always be consequences and above all about the importance of relationships. The ability to see productions like this is a privilege and I would like to see some more affordable tickets considering this is a play about financial struggle and the working class. I also think a younger audience could gain a lot from a performance like this and I know as a sixteen year old it made me think a lot and I think it’s an important message on gaining perspective and self awareness.