Standing at the Sky’s Edge review – Gillian Lynne Theatre, London ★★★☆☆

Elizabeth Ayodele as Joy and Samuel Jordan as Jimmy in Standing at the Sky’s Edge. Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.

First seen at the Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in 2019 before an Olivier award-winning run at the National Theatre last year, Standing at the Sky’s Edge, a love letter to Sheffield and its Brutalist landmark the Park Hill estate which sits high above the city, now finds itself in the West End at the Gillian Lynne Theatre.

Chris Bush’s intergenerational book interweaves the stories of three families who occupy a single Park Hill flat from its opening in the 1960s to the present day with songs by Richard Hawley – both Bush and Hawley hail from the city. Each family acts as a marker for the period in which they occupy. Ben Stones’ set replicates the Brutalist structure and the famous (and tragic) ‘I love you will u marry me’ graffiti that adorns one of the estate’s bridges, now co-opted by the new landlords in neon. The band sits in the upper levels, as if occupants of the estate themselves.

Beginning in the 1960s, we move from the first occupants, families grateful for the clean, modern flats that have raised them from the slums, to the 1980s where new families experience the estate’s descent into disrepair, and finally to the present day, the flats renovated and gentrified by London ex-pats seeking affordable housing, fascinated by the availability of fresh turmeric root for their Ottolenghi aubergine recipe at the local market, and the absence of Ocado. Along the way, we take in the miner’s strike, Brexit and everything in between – even Nick Clegg.

The cast of Standing at the Sky’s Edge. Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg. Featuring the I Love You Bridge (Jason Lowe)

There are some excellent performances amongst the 28 actors who grace the stage. Laura Putt-Pulford as Poppy is particularly good, as is Nicola Sloane as her judgey mother Vivienne and the relationship between Jimmy and Joy is touchingly played by Samuel Jordan (from the original Sheffield and National Theatre casts) and Elizabeth Ayodele. Throughout, these powerful stories are powerfully played by the ensemble, who are mostly new to the production. However, in its final scenes, as Bush brings each story to a conclusion, things become a little over-egged. The endings become somewhat cliched, and the big romantic conclusion feels more problematic than the tear-jerking emotion it aims for. (The following paragraph enters spoilers territory).

Derided by in the show as ‘Richard Curtis bullshit,’ it sees a character chase after their ex in a romantic show, agreeing to give their relationship another chance. And it would be à la Richard Curtis if the ex hadn’t cheated, been obsessively staking the other for years, organised fake flat viewings to get into the building, repeatedly showed up uninvited, and been entirely unlikeable and self-centred throughout. Bush, through the text and the emotion of Hawley’s music, wants us to hope for their relationship – I hoped the character would run a mile in the opposite direction.

Laura Pitt-Pulford as Poppy and Lauryn Redding as Nikki. Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Still, the sobs echoed around the auditorium so maybe I’m wrong – more likely, Hawley’s music, in incredible arrangements by Tom Deering, is just so good that it doesn’t matter how you play the story, it already contains multitudes. There is huge emotion in numbers like ‘Open Up Your Door’ and ‘After the Rain,’ and the whole show is a testament to Hawley’s songwriting. The songs really are sensational.

And that feels like the musical’s main issue. Not to open a debate about what defines a musical, but this feels more like a play with songs – songs that do not necessarily tie up with the content of the play. Remove the songs and perform Bush’s book and you will find a coherent and very good play. Remove the story and perform the songs and you will have an excellent concert. There is little within the songs that drive the narrative, and only so much that gives further insight into the character’s emotions or motives. How much you enjoy Standing at the Sky’s Edge will depend very much on how much you care about that. Still, you’ll be whistling As The Dawn Breaks for days afterwards. I know I will – in fact, I’m off to give Truelove’s Gutter another spin.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge is at the Gillian Lynne Theatre until 3 August 2024