Standing at the Sky’s Edge review: Achingly beautiful show breaks my heart & fills my soul | Theatre | Entertainment

I’ve said it before, this is the greatest new British musical for years. Transferring from the National Theatre to the West End’s Gillian Lynne after bagging Best New Musical and Best Original Score at the 2023 Olivier Awards, Britpop legend Richard Hawley’s back catalogue soundtracks a gut-punchingly charged tale of three sets of inhabitants of one flat across six decades in Sheffield’s iconic brutalist Sky Hill estate.

The spectacular set towers over us, complete with the iconic neon sign saying, “I love you, will you marry me,” and, as in reality, it only sometimes lights up. The sensational rock orchestra tucked onto the estate’s overhead walkways sighs and swoops over tender moments or erupts into stadium-filling fury as the magnificent cast tell the stories of a particular place at a particular time that is also all of us and all of our stories.

In 1960 a working-class couple move into the wondrous new “castle in the sky.” In 1989 their grown son returns to the crumbling estate and falls in love with a young Liberian refugee before Londoner Poppy buys the gentrified flat in 2015, fleeing her cheating girlfriend.

The timelines interweave on stage, often sharing the same space simultaneously, layering in the emotions alongside potent social and political commentary. Chris Bush’s note-perfect script tugs and heartstrings as much as it tickles funny bones. Too many shows overdo the misery or suffering, which usually leaves me cold. Make me laugh, make me care – and then I will cry.

We’re won over with a glorious barrage of references to poncey Southerners’ love of Ocado and vegan cuisine, Sheffielders’ devotion to Henderson’s Relish, and one older chap drily admitting he loves Sheffield Wednesday AND much-maligned United more than his wife. And then, only then, our wide-open hearts are torn apart.

There’s much debate over the music and its place here. A colleague suggested the book is strong enough to be a standalone play. Some critics have questioned whether the songs slow down the narrative. Jukebox musicals about pop icons like Tina Turner or the Temptations too often suffer from inserted hits that vaguely, creakily fit the story… just about.

Hawley’s exquisite compositions through the years are more like living poetry and have been steadfastly inspired by his city, its landmarks and its people. His own working-class roots weave through his blood and bones. I see this as a play with a soundtrack, the songs inform and enhance the mood of a scene and often provide a moment for us to reflect. Savour his lyrics as the orchestrations carry you away.

The Act 1 finale after Thatcher’s 1979 election victory is a spine-tingling explosive of sound and fury to There’s A Storm A-Comin.’ Hawley’s gorgeously tender mix of melancholy and painful acceptance pierce the beautiful After The Rain and For Your Lover Give Some Time.

The entire cast is superb, the musicians shine and the inventive, propulsive choreographry works shopping trolleys and swinging carrier bags into a Sheffield version of La La Land.  The surging storylines finally coalesce to blow us away in a crescendo of love, heartbreak and the acceptance that life goes on. We must not forgot who and what we have lost, individually and as a nation, but we must look up and move on. That neon sign will shine again.

Yes, we know I’m a crier, but I was not alone, tears streaming, as we rose, roaring, to our feet at the end.



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