Review by Daz Gale
After wowing audiences in Sheffield during runs in 2019 and 2022, Standing At The Sky’s Edge moves in to the National Theatre in the hope London audiences will also fall in love with this highly praised show. I went in to the show without much knowledge of this show, only being repeatedly told I HAD to see it. When something is that hyped up to me, more often than not it never manages to live up to it. Could this ever be as good as I had been led to believe?
Standing At The Sky’s Edge tells three separate stories individually and, at times, simultaneously. Set in a singular apartment in Sheffield’s Park Hill estate, we see the lives of three sets of occupants in stories that start in 1960, 1989 and 2015. Charting the highs and lows of life as each of them go from new beginnings in the apartment, this love letter to Sheffield is a testament to the power of community and what exactly makes a house a home.
Written by Chris Bush, this is a show that has no shortage of heart, wearing it for all to see. The characters are fully fleshed out, allowing the audience to fall in love with them and feel deeply when any of them do, while the situations played out feel realistic and relatable. Full of brilliant one liners and witty dialogue, the expert writing leads to a truly emotional experience and effortlessly immerses you into the pure escapism of the performance.
It is hard to talk more about the events that unfold in Standing At The Sky’s Edge without giving anything away. This is a show where it is better to go in not knowing what to expect to get the maximum reaction. That said, the seemingly unrelated stories had a payoff I hadn’t seen coming, bringing even more depth and emotion to a multi-layered story. The growth in characters is what makes this so captivating with each character ending in a very different place to where they started – it is this journey for each that makes Standing At The Sky’s Edge such a joy to watch.
As equally strong is the writing is the music and lyrics by Richard Hawley. Versatile musical numbers, many of which seem befitting of the various decades Standing At The Sky’s Edge is set in creates a timeless feel, one in which genres and eras meld together to create something truly beautiful. A fairly slow burn initially, this pays off with an explosion of sound in the gripping climax of act one and refuses to let up in a more intense second act. Soundtracking the events perfectly, it blends with the dialogue gloriously. Having the band visible as part of the set is an inspired choice with them being thrust into prominence repeatedly as cast members join them performing, evoking elements of a concert feel.
Highlights among the musical numbers include big ballads ‘After The Rain’ and the powerful ‘Open Up Your Door’, act one closer ‘There’s A Storm -Comin’ and the title number ‘Standing At the Sky’s Edge’ which opens act 2, while ‘Tonight The Streets Are Ours’ is full of so much heart, it can’t fail to completely melt your own. Arranged and orchestrated by Tom Deering, these incredible numbers are played to perfection by a jaw droppingly brilliant group of musicians.
Robert Hastie’s direction takes the source material and brings it to life in inventive ways with complicated staging, particularly when more than one story is playing out in the same space simultaneously. In someone elses hands, this may have proved convoluted and confusing – this is not the case here, as everything is so clearly defined and meticulously thought out, leading to some truly fantastic staging.
Standing At The Sky’s Edge is a musical where all the production elements tie together gloriously with nothing decreasing the high quality set by the writing and direction. Ben Stones set design is a thing of beauty, spanning multiple levels and allowing for extreme versatility despite the set never moving. Lynne Page’s choreography felt refreshing and urgent, maximising the ability to tell the story in more depth while Mark Hendersons lighting and Bobby Aitkin’s sound design brought at atmospheric setting consistently. Special mention has to go to Cynthia de la Rosa for the speedy transformations of characters through the decades thanks to her Wigs, Hair and Make-Up design.
The last element of this phenomenal production to talk about is, of course, its cast. For a show with such impressive production value and genius writing, it requires a cast of the highest possible standard. Not a problem here as the performers on that stage were all ridiculously amazing in their roles. Among the talented performers were Rachael Wooding who gives a solid performance as Rose, tapping in to the intricacies of her character beautifully and displaying great chemistry with her stage husband Harry, played by Robert Lonsdale.
Alex Young proves once again why she is one of the very best performers the UK has to offer with a nuanced interpretation of her character Poppy. In her performance, she manages to connect with everyone watching in a versatile and sometimes understated but always flawless portrayal, while Maimuna Memon delivers a scene-stealing turn at Nikki. Together, they manage some of the most impressive vocal performances of the night. Bobbie Little is another standout as Connie, helping us piece the different strands of stories together as both a narrator and the surprising yet highly satisfying developments in her own character.
Samuel Jordan is both charming and charismatic in his turn as Jimmy but perhaps the most memorable performance of the evening belonged to Faith Omole as Joy. The challenges her character has to go through can’t have been the easiest for an actor to learn, with the change in her accent the most obvious sign to how she has changed as a character. Through truly phenomenal vocals and unrivalled acting skills, Faith is constantly captivating in a performance you will not be able to stop thinking about long after you’ve left the theatre.
It would be easy to single out every single performer on that stage, both featured and ensemble. The way they all came together, often playing multiple roles was a testament to not only the genius of their own individual talents but to how fantastic the writing and direction of Standing At The Sky’s Edge is.
I am lucky that I get to experience a lot of theatre in my life. However, there are not many times I can think of where a show has provoked such an intense emotional reaction in me. Standing At The Sky’s Edge connects with an audience in a way shows can only dream of achieving and very few manage. This is a show with a lot of heart that manages to be both heart-warming and heart-breaking, sometimes at the same moment. It is a show full of feeling that in turn allows you to feel deeply.
For me and so many others, going to the theatre is a safe space and can feel like home. Fittingly, this is exactly what Standing At The Sky’s Edge manages to do. I felt at home watching the events of this remarkable show, settled in and never wanted to leave. While the standard of shows National Theatre have has been quite high over the years, I can confidently say I have never seen a better show there in all my years of visiting. In fact, this is one of the best shows I have seen in a long time and is the first real contender for my favourite show of the year.
Every element of this production is as perfect as it gets. Well thought out, ingeniously written and expertly performed, it is the heart and emotion that elevates this to a truly exceptional level. Standing At The Sky’s Edge is theatre at its very best, creating a heavenly experience. Not just a love letter to Sheffield, this is a love letter to love itself. It really is outstanding.
Standing At The Sky’s Edge plays at the Olivier Theatre until 25th March. Tickets from https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/standing-at-the-skys-edge/
Photos by Johan Persson