Standing at the Sky’s Edge: Standing at the Edge of Universal Success

Thursday, March 28, 2024

It may have received ‘Made in Sheffield’ trademark status, but Standing at the Sky’s Edge – with its themes of home, belonging and acceptance – is a musical for the ages. As it makes its West End premiere, David Jays talks to the creatives about the universality of this ‘play with a gig sitting on top of it’

The 2022 and 2023 Company of Standing at the Sky’s Edge (photo: Johan Persson)
The 2022 and 2023 Company of Standing at the Sky’s Edge (photo: Johan Persson)

Nerves were jangling at the first performance of Standing at the Sky’s Edge in 2019. A new musical, exploring six decades of Sheffield’s landmark Park Hill housing estate, awaited its audience. It was an open dress rehearsal, a tradition at the Sheffield Crucible, and former and current Park Hill residents were invited. Like the show’s characters, they spanned the estate’s hopeful opening and its bumpy subsequent decades. They included, says designer Ben Stones, ‘people from the 1960s who had moved out, and people from the ’80s who were thrown out. And then we had the yuppies from London. It could have really gone down badly.’

The actor Rachael Wooding, who played Rose, describes the scene: ‘You had this whole swathe of new people who really want to be part of Sheffield, and all these older people, sat on opposite sides of the theatre. But by the end, they all hugged, told stories about their families and then we all went for a drink together. It was one of the most moving things that has ever happened to me.’ According to director Robert Hastie: ‘We talk about the power of theatre as a force for social good and its ability to change the world. That night I saw it happening in real time. Watching them all rise to their feet and then go for a drink – some went on to a whisky tasting – it was legendary. One of the best nights of my working life, to be honest.’

To open for your potentially toughest crowd was a ballsy move, but the musical’s journey has only confirmed that first response. Hearts have been won and tears mopped at the Crucible and London’s National Theatre. The musical draws from the grit and grace of Sheffield singer-songwriter Richard Hawley, and its blend of soaring music, social history and turbulent personal lives has proved hugely emotive. A television version is in development, and the show is now opening at the Gillian Lynne Theatre in London’s West End.

Last year, I overheard two people chatting during the National Theatre run. One said uncertainly, ‘I don’t think it’s a drink – more of a condiment?’ Yes, the mysteries of Sheffield’s Henderson’s Relish (a recurring reference and key piece of merch) were being revealed. The musical has been proudly embraced by its home city – it has the unusual distinction of an honorary doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University, and is also the first theatre production to receive ‘Made in Sheffield’ trademark status, more commonly awarded to industry or manufacturing.

Rachael Wooding and Robert Lonsdale as working-class couple Rose and Harry at the National Theatre (photo: Johan Persson)

Clearly it’s a source of local pride – but that doesn’t necessarily indicate it could travel. ‘We were told by some very high-powered people that it was just a show for Sheffield,’ says Stones, ‘but it could be set anywhere.’ For Hastie, who is also artistic director of Sheffield Theatres: ‘It was always the ambition to tell a universal story through this specific one. Taking it to the National Theatre, we were really conscious that we were carrying a chorus of Sheffield’s voices to the heart of the cultural establishment and allowing them to be heard. That sense of responsibility and pride continues as we go into the Gillian Lynne Theatre.’

A West End run may feel inevitable, given the show’s reception (two Olivier Awards, South Bank Sky Arts Award and more), but it’s the culmination of a 10-year journey. ‘The issue of social housing is not a thing you thought you’d write a musical about,’ Hastie says drily, ‘and defies any easy answers.’ Park Hill, once a beacon of possibility, had since become a go-to filming location for Belfast, Bosnia or dystopia. ‘Chris Bush wasn’t the first person to approach the story as the book writer,’ Hastie says. ‘But her access to Sheffield narratives made her exactly right for this project.’

The stories Bush considered weren’t always obvious: ‘I wanted three discrete timelines and to go back and forth between them. There is a tendency when dealing with predominantly working-class stories set in the north that everything becomes extremely white and heteronormative. I knew that wasn’t the story I was going to tell.’ Reflecting on the fact that Sheffield in 1960 was a predominantly white working-class city, Bush gives us Rose and Harry – ‘love’s young dream. But,’ Bush explains, ‘Sheffield was also the UK’s first city of sanctuary, a designated organisation to welcome migrants and refugees, and that’s reflected in the 1980s timeline’ – a timeline concerning young Joy and her family from Liberia. ‘And where can we have meaningful queer representation?’ Bush asks rhetorically. Enter Poppy who, in the modern strand, arrives from that London to build a new life on the gentrified estate.

The sound of the show is the sound of the community. We wanted it to feel like the city was singing – not just the people, but the buildings and landscape

Tom Deering, music supervisor

Life comes at all the characters – these are all, in different ways, ‘sad and tragic stories’, Hastie acknowledges. ‘And it doesn’t resolve the thorny question of how we feel about this place of 1,000 homes, properties built for working people and which are now being sold for considerable amounts to private development. But for all that complexity, it does give you a feeling that is really simple and visceral: about home or belonging.’

Part of the show’s emotive power is the way the three layered timelines unfold in parallel – scenes goosebump into each other, creating a frisson with each conjunction of hope or dismay.

It also honours the promise of a housing project that in reality lost its shine as the decades passed. ‘I didn’t want to tell a story of inevitable decline,’ Bush says, ‘because that felt not particularly truthful or dramatically satisfying. If you do go purely chronologically, this utopian dream in the 1960s peaks and goes downhill quite rapidly.’

Stones recalls that the team considered having three different, period-detailed rooms, perhaps on a revolve, until he realised that it worked better with one room. ‘The characters are like ghosts passing in the night,’ he says.

A poignant, transformative idea, Bush explains, it was not only ‘an elegant, fluid staging solution’ but let ‘three timelines sit directly on top of each other – in some cases, around the same table.’

The musical landscape also offers goosebumps aplenty. Despite an impressively varied career, music supervisor Tom Deering wasn’t familiar with these songs: ‘I typed Richard Hawley into Spotify and thought, “Where has this been my whole life?” You open your heart to this music and then realise how devastating some of the lyrics are. Each of his songs is about a specific person, moment or place, but in that specificity he captures the universal. It feels like he’s singing to me.’

Hawley gave the team free rein to pick from his back catalogue. ‘Richard is a genius,’ says Bush. ‘But the biggest mistake would be to expect the songs to operate like Musical Theatre songs. Musically, structurally, lyrically, they’re not designed to do the same thing. We found a form we would describe as a play with a gig sitting on top of it.’ So how does Deering make the songs theatrical? ‘Richard’s songs are like one-act plays,’ he considers. ‘I was keen that we had a rhythm section, so that we could do the rock ‘n’ roll thing, but also strings so we could go really delicate and intimate, and hear the internal world of people that are quite austere or reserved. They have hopes, fears and longings that we wouldn’t access on the outside.’

The original cast also helped shape the musical world: ‘There’s so much of them in the arrangements and orchestrations,’ Deering says. ‘We had interesting conversations – “What’s the emotional journey?” You learn it all in real time with these amazing voices and actors.’

‘Tom Deering has this genius brain,’ Wooding tells me. ‘He hears symphonies where we hear a tin whistle.’ More widely, Deering says: ‘The sound of the show is the sound of the community. We wanted it to feel like the city was singing – not just the people, but the buildings and landscape.’ He describes how voices join Rose’s wrenching ‘After the Rain’: ‘We had this idea that the community are holding hands around Rose.’

For Wooding, there’s a feeling that she’s known these songs her entire life: ‘They run through my veins now.’

She demystifies the way these numbers propel the show. ‘Sky’s Edge allows the audience to press pause on a particular moment, letting it sit, while the music creates the atmosphere. It gives you time to breathe and take it all in.’

Hastie’s office, like so much of Sheffield, has a view of Park Hill. As a place with immense significance for generations of the city’s residents, did that bring an added sense of responsibility to the whole creative team? ‘It’s literally on the doorstep,’ Bush admits, ‘so there is an obligation to be authentic and not misrepresent.’ Bush, who grew up in Sheffield (‘the city that I love more than anywhere else’), is well aware that ‘Park Hill is not an uncontroversial or politically neutral site. The estate wasn’t financially supported by the council to stop it essentially going derelict, and there are people whose parents and grandparents might have been there who can’t afford to get in now – it’s a knotty issue. But there are no villains onstage, just characters trying their best to find somewhere that feels like home.’

The estate’s warm, looming presence is captured in Stones’s design. ‘I did initially try transposing Park Hill to a stage,’ he admits, ‘but it is so ginormous! It had to be a poetic version.’ His final design turned out to be a perfect fit for the thrust stage of the National’s Olivier Theatre. How will it adapt to the Gillian Lynne? ‘The stage there is wider and not very deep,’ says Stones, ‘so I’ve had to rework the set to fit within those confines.’ He’s confident, though, that any adjustments won’t impact on the audience’s overall experience.

The flat within the development that three different eras call home becomes real for the audience – and for the actors, too. As Wooding says: ‘Ben’s set is massive and imposing but the playing space is very small and personal. Once you’re in that flat you feel safe.’

Wooding also connects to the real lives behind the fictional characters. ‘I’m a northern white woman,’ she says, ‘I’ve been privileged to a degree because I’m white, but I’ve lived in that skin. These women’s stories need to be told. People who don’t do extraordinary things – but who survive awful tragedies, put one foot in front of the other, keep going and teach us how to live.’

Wooding, who has been with Sky’s Edge from the beginning and now features in the West End cast, hadn’t even intended to audition back in 2018. A seasoned performer, noted for We Will Rock You and Evita, she admits she was falling out of love with musicals until impulsively deciding to go for it. ‘The fire in my belly had gone out, but it was immediately ignited.’ She continues: ‘Nothing ever made me feel, as an actor, like this does. I care about these people, even though they’re not real. They are real to me.’

And for audiences? Why does Standing at the Sky’s Edge connect so strongly with them? ‘In its purest, simplest form, it’s a story about home,’ says Bush. ‘What home means and who it’s for.’ Stones wells up at the same question. ‘There’s a great lyric in “Our Darkness”,’ he says, ‘which says “In darkness we talk of love.” I think it’s just about love. Of all genders, generations, sexualities. We’re all represented there. It starts with home, but it ends with love.’

Standing at the Sky’s Edge opens at the Gillian Lynne Theatre on 8 February – for tickets, visit

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2024 issue of Musicals magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today