Standing at the Sky’s Edge

‘I love you will U marry me’ graffito, Park Hill Flats, Sheffield (2014)

One of the many pleasures of seeing the revised Chris Bush/Richard Hawley drama, Standing at the Sky’s Edge, at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre is that when you walk out at the interval into the bar there through the huge windows – particularly at matinée performances – you see Park Hill Flats, and the horizon behind is Sky Edge.

The play, written by Chris Bush around Richard Hawley’s evocative music, is a tribute to Sheffield – Dan Hayes’ review in The Tribune called it “a musical love letter” – using Park Hill, the landmark 1960s housing development, as a backcloth to the changing fortunes of the city and its people.

Its intricate plot interweaves the lives of three sets of occupants of the same Park Hill flat – a 1960s newly-wed couple, a 1980s family of Liberian refugees and a 2010s London woman seeking a new life up north.

Using the dramatic technique of simultaneous setting, the three narratives overlay in fascinating, pertinent ways.  At one point members of the three families sit at the same dining table, oblivious of any time but their own, and are served meals from the same oven – freshly cooked decades apart, plated up in the kitchen on stage and served with a bottle of Henderson’s Relish.

Newcomers to Park Hill arrive in hope yet don’t necessarily live entirely happily ever after.  The promises on which these streets in the sky were built in the 1960s die unfulfilled.  The bitterness of the 1980s hurts the entire community as the flats begin to decay.  The refurbishment of the largest Grade II* listed building in Europe from 2009 onwards removes the families who remain from the beginning and replaces them with newcomers who are also usurpers.

The script highlights aspects of local culture that resonate with the story of the flats and the city.  The original families moved in alongside their old neighbours to walkways named after the demolished streets of terraces.  A generation later, the working-class tenants who wanted to stay put were evicted.  The story behind the celebrated graffito “I Love You Will U Marry Me” does not end happily:  Sheffield: ‘I Love You Will U Marry Me’ graffiti reinstated – BBC News

I sense that Standing at the Sky’s Edge is becoming a classic which will celebrate Sheffield for future generations, resonating with the way the Park Hill Flats dominate the city’s skyline.  It could achieve national stature as a document of ways our society has changed since the 1960s.

The production transfers to the National Theatre, opening on February 9th 2023.  It will be interesting to see how well it travels.  In the Crucible there was a strong audience reaction to local allusions like Henderson’s Relish (don’t ever compare it to Worcestershire sauce), the rivalry between Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United and the belief that Leeds people are not a patch on Sheffield folk.

Both Richard Hawley and Chris Bush are Sheffield-born, and Richard has customarily named his albums after Sheffield locations – Coles’ Corner (2005), Lady’s Bridge (2007), Truelove’s Gutter (2009).  The title Standing at the Sky’s Edge comes from his 2012 album and identifies the scene of illegal pitch-and-toss activities dominated by Sheffield’s notorious Mooney and Garvin gangs in the 1920s.

The physical locations – Sky Edge, Park Hill and the Crucible Theatre – and Richard Hawley’s outstanding music and lyrics combine to celebrate places and people in a city that doesn’t make a fuss and gets on with life.

3 thoughts on “Standing at the Sky’s Edge

  1. Stephen Smith

    You write beautifully with weighting and rhythm. Thank you for the review. My grandparents probably made the right decision to leave Sheffield and Barnsley in the 1920s. Yet it is curious how the city looms in our memory through family stories and treasured possessions.

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