Standing at the Sky's Edge
Chris Bush and Richard Hawley
A capacity audience of local enthusiasts packed the Crucible studio in Sheffield for the press night of Standing at the Sky’s Edge which celebrates the rise, fall and rise again of a local icon, the Park Hill flats, which were built the late fifties to replace outmoded and decaying council slums in the heart of the city.
The flats were initially a developer’s dream influenced by ‘the utopian designs’ of French architect Le Corbusier, which would provide the tenants with a glorious urban view and ‘walkways in the sky’. As the dream faded along with the economic viability of the city and increasing levels of unemployment, the high rise buildings were subject to increasing neglect and dereliction and remained for years a crumbling accusatory gateway into the city.
Robert Hastie’s production places one of these flats at the centre of the stage space but, since all the flats are identical, the one flat stands for similar flats occupied by the three families whose fortunes we follow in the course of the play. Hastie distorts stage convention brilliantly so the on stage flat can be occupied by more than one family at a time to suggest life going on in three flats simultaneously. The overlap is exciting and has the advantage of dovetailing short scenes and making the action flow rapidly. Ben Jones’s set also allows plenty of space for singing, dancing and energetic fights and accommodates a substantial band on a higher ‘floor’.
The play written by Chris Bush with music and lyrics by Richard Hawley focuses on three families; a steel worker who loses his job and takes to drink; an immigrant family including a recent young female refugee from Guinea; and a young woman who has relocated from London to escape a difficult relationship.
The structure of the play is Brechtian, with short scenes punctuated by songs from Hawley’s repertoire and often accompanied by dynamic dance routines. There is something of a disconnect between the specificity of Sheffield as a locale and the experience of the denizens of the Park Hill flats. But tales of hardship in the late twentieth century were not confined to one city and lives described in the Sheffield context would be recognisable in any industrial city in the UK.
The large cast is supplemented by members of the Sheffield People’s Theatre. The quality of the singing is excellent and the dancing and stage fights energetic, exciting and precise. Faith Omole gives a moving performance as Joy, the African refugee, whom we see age over several years as she gradually becomes more integrated into British society. She and other members of the cast give powerful voice to individual songs and ensemble numbers like "Standing at the Sky’s Edge" are dynamic and well supported by the band under musical director Will Stuart.
The devising process for the play included interviews with people who had lived in the Park Flats during the period under consideration and remembered the euphoria of moving into well appointed flats with an inside toilet. I spoke to several members of the audience who had a connection with the flats, some of whom would have liked a more specific focus on Park Hill rather than a more general consideration of the nationwide experience. But the audience response was wildly enthusiastic, so while this is very much a local show it has much to say to people who have experienced similar conditions elsewhere.