Richard Hawley & Chris Bush’s Standing At The Sky’s Edge – Gillian Lynne Theatre – Review

Sheffield high-rise musical hits the heights


★★★★

Standing At The Sky’s Edge. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

With a book written by Chris Bush and music by Richard Hawley, both born in Sheffield, and direction by Robert Hastie, who is the Artistic Director of the city’s Crucible theatre where it began life, Standing At The Sky’s Edge is Made In Sheffield, just as much as the steel for which the city was famous. Yet it has a universal appeal, as shown by its the National Theatre and now to the West End.

Starting in 1961 and spanning nearly sixty years, the musical tells the story of three families who at separate times live in a high-rise flat in the huge Sheffield housing estate called Park Hill. Their narratives later intersect but initially it seems like a portrait of three discrete times adding up to a history of modern Britain. There’s the socialist optimism following the second world war; the decimation of industrial Britain and the destruction of working-class communities during the Thatcher years (Act One concludes with a shocking riot to the tune of There’s A Storm A-Coming); and today’s liberal-minded but materialistic services economy. I assume Chris Bush leans to the left but she wears her socialism lightly.

They all have their histories, their tragedies, and most of all their love stories. A neon sign says ‘I love you Will u marry me’ replicating the real sign on the flats which itself was based on a famous piece of graffiti.

The main interest is in characters who try to make the best of their situations, even if some fall through the cracks. Her dialogue flows as smoothly as the River Sheaf.

The musical begins with a traditional British working-class couple moving in, thrilled to have all mod cons. Rachael Wooding as Rose is excellent as she goes from excited young wife to strong partner when her husband loses his job following the steelworks closures and to a weary acceptance when life often doesn’t work out as expected, exemplified in her heart breaking rendition of After The Rain. Her husband Harry, played by Joel Harper-Jackson, makes a journey too, starting as a confident provider, then falling apart as so many proud working-class men did without a job to give meaning to their lives.

Next, as the estate becomes run down, we see the arrival of immigrant refugees.  Joy has been brought by her aunt and uncle from Liberia to the safety of Sheffield. Played by   Elizabeth Ayodele, she undergoes a transformation as she rebels against the values of the old country and adopts the culture of Sheffield, including a change in accent.

Finally, we meet Poppy, perhaps the one with whom we will feel the most in common. She’s a marketing person from London who has headed north to get over a broken relationship. Although she has the least dramatic story, mainly relying on jokes about today’s middle class lifestyle, it’s hard not to be touched by Laura Pitt-Pulford as she conveys Poppy’s desire to be part of a community.  Lauryn Redding as her desperate ex belts out a rousing version of Open Up Your Door.

Laura Pitt-Pulford, Elizabeth Ayodele and Rachael Wooding in Standing at the Sky’s Edge. Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.

Chris Bush’s witty, angry and moving script finds parallels in the different eras, so that all three families eventually appear on the stage at the same time, their conversations overlapping. It’s a real sense of how a building retains its history and a way to see how much ostensibly different people can have in common. It reminded me of some of Alan Aykbourn’s experiments in presenting more than one narrative simultaneously on stage. The disadvantage of this approach is that it’s harder to become involved with individual stories.

The selection of Richard Hawley’s poetic songs creates an impressive soundtrack for a rock musical but there is plenty of variation in style. A blistering bluesy version of the title number opens Act Two.  The many excellent songs, angry, poignant or passionate, augment what’s happening on stage and are wonderfully performed but inevitably they seem too often as if they have been tacked on to the story rather than integral to it, like the blistering bluesy version of the title number that opens Act Two.

Robert Hastie moves these various narratives deftly around the set and at tiumes has the whoile cast of over thirty players interweaving on stage. Lynn Page’s clever choreography at times had the cast moving in a rhythmical walking motion and swaying embraces, uniting different times, generations and classes.

Ben Stone’s set is magnificent, filling the stage with a three storey section of a building with the features of a Park Hill high rise. The main action takes place on a basic but sufficient representation of a flat while the upper two floors are occupied by a large band. The flat apparently offers a glorious view of Sheffield but for us it is down-to-earth.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge is an excellent musical that not only has much to say but says it from the heart. It deserves a long life in the West End.

Standing At Sky’s Edge continues at Gillian Lynne Theatre until 3 August 2024.

Click here to buy tickets directly.

Paul was given a review ticket by the producer.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Operation Mincemeat- West End review

​From fringe to hit West End musical

★★★★★

Two actors watch as another dances in front of a painting of Winston Churchill in the stage musical Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre June 2023
Zoe Roberts, Jak Malone & Natasha Hodgson in Operation Mincemeat Photo: Matt Crockett

This was my first ever visit to the Fortune Theatre, because for the last 33 years it has been the home to The Woman In Black. Now it’s hosting Operation Mincemeat and while it may not match the previous occupant’s three decades, this accomplished, fast-moving musical comedy certainly deserves a long run.

From the moment the yellow curtain goes up on Operation Mincemeat, you know you’re in for a treat. It begins with a chorus number by the five cast members, who start as they mean to go on. They fill the stage with their larger than life characters, exuberant performances and the sheer enjoyment of being there.
Over a couple of hours, we are told the true, albeit embellished, story from World War Two of an MI5 plan to use a dead body with fake papers to fool the German army into thinking the British will invade Sardinia rather than Sicily. However, this is not really a tribute to MI5, more a satire on male chauvinism in general and the Old Boy network in particular.
Operation Mincemeat is written and composed by David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson and Zoë Roberts, developed from an idea that became a run at the tiny New Diorama theatre in London and then polished into a West End show. Currently, all of the creators, less composer Felix Hagan, are in the cast and are joined by Claire Marie Hall and Jak Malone who have fantastic singing voices. The others sing well too. I’m pretty sure the four understudies who are given equal billing in the programme are also multi-talented.
The cast play many parts of both male and female gender, and this adds an additional layer of humour, as when Natasha Hodgson, playing the group’s leader Ewen Montagu, struts with old Etonian entitlement and masculine pomposity. His response to the question ‘Is it legal?’ is ‘Does it matter?’ And he tells us in song:
​For we were made to give the orders / While lesser men take heed / For some were born to follow / But we were born to lead.

Outstanding performances

Outstanding is Jak Malone as the secretary Hester, who sings the most moving song of the evening, Dear Bill, a fictitious letter to a soldier on the front line. Zoë Roberts is constantly hilarious as Johnny Bevan, the bureaucratic man ultimately in charge, Ian Fleming with his eccentric ideas for a spy novel, and Haselden, our out-of-his-depth ‘man in Spain’. David Cumming is a riot as the shy, panicking, nerdy Charles, while Claire Marie Hall excels as the artless young assistant Jean.
The cast of Operation Mincement, a stage musical at the Fortune Theatre in London. Three actors are standing, one is sitting on a desk, the fifth is seated holding a phone.
Zoe Roberts, Jak Malone,, David Cumming, Natasha Hodgson & Claire-Marie Hall in Operation Mincemeat. Photo: Matt Crockett

Many of the routines seem like classic comedy- music hall even. For example, there’s a scene where all five are exchanging and getting tangled in hats, phones and a briefcase, with clockwork precision. And there are moments of stage magic when they change characters and costumes in the blink of an eye.

The cast are greatly aided by having director Robert Hastie and choregrapher Jenny Arnold on board. Both are highly experienced and it shows in the slickness of the production. And yet Operation Mincemeat retains the feel and excitement of a fringe show. The theatre is one of the smallest in the West End with a stage to match.  Ben Stones‘ set is deliberately sparse with a couple of desks and chairs, a display board and a mobile staircase, plus a backdrop reminiscent of a map, and, that staple of farces, lots of doors. Until that is, we launch into a very non-fringe-like finale, complete with glittering Nazis, which really is as ‘glitzy’ as they announce.
The songs cross a number of musical genres, with clever, witty lyrics that are often delivered at the sort of breakneck speed that may remind you of Gilbert and Sullivan or Frank Loesser. How about this?
If we cannot storm the beaches / It’s sure to spell defeat / If the muscle-men can’t do it / Call the masters of deceit.
In a way, there is a parallel between the small MI5 team that pulled off this unlikely deceit that helped an invasion, and the small group that created this unexpected hit that invaded the West End. It is an incredibly polished, laugh-out-loud musical, and one that deserves to run and run.
Operation Mincemeat is at the Fortune Theatre until at least 4 November 2023. operationmincemeat.com
Paul paid for his ticket.
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