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Review: Standing At The Sky's Edge (Gillian Lynne Theatre)

Review by Daz Gale


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


Every and now then, a show comes along that is so special, that the word of mouth around it becomes the stuff of legend. That happened with Standing At The Sky’s Edge which finally made it to London last year after two sensational seasons in Sheffield for a critically acclaimed run at National Theatre. Now after a journey that has taken it through the years, it has made it to the West End – but could this latest production repeat the success of the previous years?



Set in the same apartment on the Park Hill estate in Sheffield, Standing At The Sky’s Edge tells three separate stories simultaneously as we watch the action from the same room in a timeframe spanning more than 50 years as three families move in, experiencing all the highs and lows as well as loves and losses they have had to deal with in their lives. What feels like a very small story covers the biggest aspects of humanity in a way that certainly packs a punch.

 

Written by Chris Bush, there really are no words to do justice to just how stunning her words are, but let me try… badly, no doubt. Chris’ writing is full of sensitivity, nuance, and flair that tenderly tells multiple stories in the most intricate of ways. Cleverly weaving together multiple narratives to showcase their similarities and differences with some ultimately satisfying payoffs, Chris has ultimately embodied the very essence of humanity in a singular show in a way unlike no other has done before.



A multitude of characters are all fully fleshed out, covering a wide range of challenges and emotions in a short space of time – it is remarkable just how much can be covered in this beautiful story which manages to be simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking. The hope and optimism mixed with life’s crushing disappointments and cruel twists of fate are all played out with such authenticity, that it is impossible not to connect regardless of how much you might relate yourself. Billed as a love letter to Sheffield, Standing At The Sky’s Edge is also a love letter to life and love itself.

 

Sheffield singer-songwriter Richard Hawley has his music interspersed through the show in what is technically a jukebox musical but is living proof of how versatile and intelligent this genre of show can be. Meticulously used throughout the show to punctuate the story and draw more depth from the dialogue, their usage is as impressive as the quality of the songs. I must admit not being familiar with any of Hawley’s work before seeing this show for the first time and find it hard to believe they weren’t written for this very musical, such is the nature of them. A naturally gifted songwriter, this show is a testament to his talent and knack for storytelling which blends with Chris Bush’s writing seamlessly. Opening number ‘As The Dawn Breaks’ sets the standard to a ridiculously high level which miraculously is met throughout, never faltering or even dipping, right until the song is repeated at the very end of the show. Other musical highlights include the title number ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’, the rousing 'Open Up Your Door', and the stunning standout ‘After The Rain’.




Some people are adamant they can’t stand musical theatre (I’ll never understand it but to each their own). The common excuse is they hate when characters burst into song randomly. I would encourage them to see this show. If you know somebody who says they don’t like musicals, they might be surprised by Standing At The Sky’s Edge which tries a different approach and sets the gold standard for how musicals might appeal to those who might not otherwise be seen dead at one. Lynne Page’s orchestrations and arrangements and Tom Deering’s music supervision work wonders in realising Hawley’s music to this story.

 

Robert Hastie’s direction throughout the show is nothing short of spectacular. The sprawling set design replicating Park Hill Estate is glorious, with Ben Stones excelling in his execution of the design, particularly the touches involving the iconic “I love you, Will u marry me” sign. New touches have been added to give a grander scope this time around which Hastie makes full use of, further bringing Bush’s words and Hawley’s music to life in fabulous fashion. If I was blown away by the direction at last year’s National Theatre production, it has been upped this time, making full use of the space of the Gillian Lynne Theatre. Blurring the boundaries between the stage and the audience creates a further impact in key moments, particularly in the rousing and affecting end of Act One. These moments are amplified through Ben Stones’ beautiful-to-behold choreography, rich in every detail and so intricately performed. The variety of songs lend itself well to this with the larger group numbers packing a punch in their huge impact and the quieter, more tender moments every bit as effective.



Last year’s cast was sublime, all showing brilliant characterisations. This West End production sees several of them return to the roles, joined by many new cast members, allowing for an opportunity to bring something fresh to the characters, and boy do they put their own stamp on them all. Elizabeth Ayodele is at the heart of the story in her mesmerising turn as Joy. As the character goes on an extreme journey, Elizabeth taps into so many details in her characterisation, full of warmth and completely embodying Joy to a, well, joyous effect. Samuel Jordan reprises his role as Jimmy, forming the perfect partnership with Elizabeth and leaving his heart on the stage in a beautifully loving performance that seems to have become even more well-rounded than last year’s already pretty flawless interpretation. As part of this strand, Sharlene Hector and Baker Mukasa stand out in powerhouse performances as Grace and George respectively, with the latter getting a musical highlight in the infectious and soulful 'Tonight The Streets Are Ours'.


Also returning to the show is Rachael Wooding as Rose, showcasing growth in the decades for her character, performed naturally and subtly. She gets perhaps the vocal performance of the night in ‘After The Rain’, bringing the house down with her immeasurable talent. Her husband Harry is played by the always wonderful Joel Harper-Jackson who reaches a career best as the complicated character. Beautifully understated at times, the pair may not have the easiest of relationships in the show, but their chemistry is clear to see, no matter how fractured things may get for them.

 


Another standout across the consistently phenomenal cast is Laura Pitt-Pulford in the role of Poppy. Initially more of a slow burner of a story than the other two, once Poppy lets her walls come down, a wealth of warmth and love is given from her in a flawless characterisation. Lauryn Redding has the unenviable task of playing a character that isn’t always likable in the difficult Nikki but she does this with ease, relishing in the opportunity to dig deep into what her motivations are, and exploring fantastic acting through song in 'Open Up Your Door'. The scenes Laura and Lauryn play together are among the most captivating of the show. Mel Lowe expertly holds these three separate stories together in the narrator-esque role of Connie, There are so many more incredible actors I could easily name in this review as every performer on that stage, no matter how big or small their role or stage time, manages to leave their mark in what may be the best ensemble cast in the West End right now.

 

One visit to Standing At The Sky’s Edge makes it clear why this show has penetrated so many people’s hearts since its debut. Its ability to make you feel is unrivaled in its approach as its raw and unflinching nature often leaves you forgetting you are watching a fictional but of theatre, such is the skillful and realistic nature of the stories. Rarely can a show have such a profound impact on one person, let alone the sheer number who have been affected by this. One visit here will have you laughing, crying, loving, and, most importantly, living. I struggle to think of any other show that speaks so much to the nature of life and humanity in itself.




One of the themes of the show is the meaning of home and what truly makes one - the fact it manages to replicate this feeling in the audience speaks volumes for its sensitivity and strength, feeling very much at home in the West End where I hope it remains for years to come. Life-affirming and a testament to the very best of what theatre can do – when it comes to this completely perfect show which could well be the best British musical we have seen in a long time, the sky’s the limit.


Standing At The Sky’s Edge plays at the Gillian Lynne Theatre. Tickets from www.skysedgemusical.com

 

Photos by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

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