Culture writer Hannah Dalgliesh attends the National Theatre’s Standing At The Sky’s Edge, being particularly moved by the musical’s touching and authentic portrayal of Yorkshire.
No one writes musicals about Yorkshire, I thought, when I first heard of the National Theatre’s new musical, Standing at the Sky’s Edge. What a radical idea, to take the Park Hill housing estate in Sheffield and use it as the centre point for a piece I had no idea would move me quite so much. ‘A castle built of streets in the sky,’ or so this musical sees Park Hill.
Spanning from 1960 to 2020, this breath-taking production charts the lives of three of its inhabitants: a steel-working family whose lives are torn apart when Thatcher destroys northern industry; Liberian refugees in the 80s who struggle to adjust to the UK and cannot understand a Yorkshire accent; and a posh young woman in 2016 who is escaping her life in the south.
Already nominated for eight Olivier Awards in 2023, including Best New Musical and Best Actress in A Musical (Faith Omole), this lyrical love letter to Yorkshire is undoubtedly a masterpiece of theatrical possibility. Growing up in Yorkshire in the early 2000s I felt keenly the lasting pinch of Thatcher and the damage she did to our cities; justice is duly served in furious movement sequences, electric choreography and truly soaring voices. It is also deeply rooted in the working-class culture and beauty of Yorkshire that I miss every day. Jokes about Henderson’s Relish, Sheffield’s two rival football teams, and frequent digs at Leeds made my heart ache: this is the humour and the friendly divisions of God’s own country acted seamlessly on stage.
As the story navigates historic election results; evolving social attitudes; and many, many prime ministers, the script effortlessly blooms into a spectacle with emotional power beyond words. Each song has the audience smiling, swaying, breathless, and often weeping. One particular moment has stayed with me for weeks: a dark stage on which miners crossed the walkways of the flats with no lights but their helmet torches, descending into a trapdoor in the stage. As they walked past, each was handed a single flower by their wife. The evocative desperation of this image and the silent trepidation with which they walked was felt in the skin. The pain and horror of the industry’s collapse and what that meant for the working-class men of Yorkshire was captured with empathy and brilliance.
Out of this pain and hopelessness comes the magnificent voices of Alex Young and Faith Omole, the contemporary female protagonists whose voices lift to the roof of the Olivier stage and melt onto the Thames. Spine-tingling, impassioned and nostalgic, the calibre of these actresses cannot be overstated. With an extraordinary ensemble, beautiful brutalist set, Richard Hawley’s gorgeous lyrics, and masterful acting, Standing At The Sky’s Edge reminds us that the National Theatre truly does use art to represent the nation in its entirety: northern England’s recent history is brushed into performance as if a painting. It is exhilarating, exuberant, and utterly absorbing. As love and dreams are built and broken by external pressure, this dazzling musical reaches a theatrical crescendo. This is theatre at its finest.
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