REVIEW: Standing At The Sky’s Edge, National Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Paul T Davies reviews Standing At The Sky’s Edge, a new musical by Chris Bush and Richard Hawley now playing at the National Theatre, London.

Standing At The Sky's Edge
Rachel Wooding (Rose) and Robert Lonsdale (Harry). Photo: Johan Persson

Standing At the Sky’s Edge.
National Theatre.
13 February 2023
5 Stars
Book Tickets

Park Hill Estate, Sheffield. One flat in the high-rise estate, three decades and the story of Britain and its working classes from 1960 to the present. In 1960 Harry and Rose move in from the slum clearances, full of hope, and, as Harry points out later, gratitude. It’s no wonder their surname is Stanhope. In 1989, Joy and her aunt and uncle move in, refugees, and warned always to keep their door locked, because of the “bad men”. The estate, like many in Britain, fell into disrepair when Thatcherism killed off the industry and led to economic despair. But the buildings are grade two listed and cannot be pulled down, and in 2015 Poppy moves into a “split level duplex”, with an Ocado delivery due and making a new start, fleeing heartbreak. The book by Chris Bush and music and lyrics by Richard Hawley are in perfect synergy to tell this moving and inspiring story. The architecture may be Brutal, but its structure is love, family and survival.

Standing At The Sky's Edge
The Company. Photo: Johan Persson

It’s a company with no weak foundations, the band superb, the musical standing strong and proud, each character central to the story. As Rose, Rachael Wooding is outstanding, trying to support her husband Harry, (Robert Lonsdale expertly charting his despair from the youngest foreman the city has ever seen to long-term unemployed in the 80s/90s), and Wooding’s rendition of Hawley’s best song, After The Rain, will break your heart. Their son Jimmy meets Joy, (superb Faith Omole) in 1989, and their daughter, Connie, (Bobbie Little, an excellent narrator and commentator), is the estate agent who sells the flat to Poppy, her heart broken by her lover, Nikki, who turns up trying for reconciliation. Here Maimuna Memon confirms her prodigious talent shown in Manic Street Creature, and Alex Young as Poppy enjoys her waspish sense of humour. All the women not only stand at the sky’s edge, they hold it up. The climax of Act One pounds into your senses as the estate collapses into ruin, There’s A Storm A’Comin’ lifting the musical from special to extraordinary.

National Theatre
The Company. Photo: Johan Persson

If Act One is about moving in and hope for the future, Act Two is about moving on, loss and survival, and it packs an emotional punch. There are three elections, especially the 1979 general one that brought Thatcher to power, and the Brexit referendum, but the show wisely keeps the political personal. We are so invested in the characters, we see clearly how decisions made high up affect the lives of those who have to live with the consequences. “I love you, will you marry me?” was a piece of graffiti that was removed, then replaced with a neon version, and it hangs over Ben Stones’ superb set, and Robert Hastie’s direction is pitch perfect. As the company return to the opening number, As The Dawn Breaks, given a hymnal quality at the conclusion, your heart will fill, this is totally moving and engaging experience. Shout it from the highest tower block, this is the musical to see now.

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