Standing at the Sky’s Edge

Richard Hawley’s 2012 album Standing at the Sky’s Edge has been called “an underrated classic.” Recorded in his hometown of Sheffield, Hawley’s velvet tones capture the extraordinariness of the ordinary through haunting melodies, evocative lyrics and exemplary musicianship. Throughout his decades’ long career, Hawley seems rarely to have cavilled at the label of “underrated,” since his modest approach to his music has encouraged a loyal club of fans who all feel as if they have, personally discovered his genius. Sometimes referred to as a “musician’s musician” implying that he is predominantly appreciated by those-in-the-know, it is increasingly the case that the secret’s out.

Soon after the album’s release, he teamed up with Chris Bush to create this, loosely described, stage version of the album, now playing at the Gillian Lynne Theatre in the West End – a suitably underrated venue.

The ensemble cast perform Hawley’s lyrics (songs taken from the Sky’s Edge album but also from his back catalogue) and pitch them into a drama set around the lives of three families living – in different time periods – in a single flat in Park Hill flats. The political periodisation of the play reflects as much that of the changing fate of the building as it does the characters: as Park Hill turns from modernist masterpiece to run-down dereliction, to upmarket leasehold. The staging is impressive, with a real sense of the monumentality of the Brutalist building, without the action moving too far from centre stage. With the backdrop of the concrete blocks, the flat in which the action takes place is simply picked out as a plan outline on the floor so that we have to imagine the demarcation between the inside and outside.

The first young couple to be given the keys at the turn of the 1960s, are just married and have been moved from the post-war slums into a new flat with all mod cons. It is a time of hope and aspiration, a time of progress and hope for the future. He is a bread-winning husband (with a job-for-life) who prefers a stay-at-home wife. In many ways, it is “progress” and “the future” that catches up with them. The second family are Liberian refugees escaping the civil war, dumped on an estate in decline but with a desire to improve themselves by their own hand. The third occupant is Polly, a middle-class woman escaping a failed relationship and moving from London to make a fresh start in the gritty north.

The play intertwines their lives and loves, their personal ambitions and failed expectations, as the various eras roll on, spanning each family’s occupation of the flat. It is a simple premise – although clearly a complicated technique to allow the overlapping narratives to unfold. With poignant dialogue, realistic context, and well-chosen lyrics it is an engrossing production.

Every song is beautifully performed. The cast members sing in character or occasionally break into a cabaret-style performance behind a microphone (managing not to break the magic). All the vocals are excellent, but I must single out Joel Harper Jackon (Harry) who had an exquisite tone that came into its own in songs reflecting the heart-breaking decline of the working-class couple. The tragedy was all the more visceral in the historic context of the unravelling of industrial Britain at the time.

The gradual integration of the immigrant family seemed to be heading for a happy resolution until – this being real life and not the melodrama of (as one character called it) “Richard Curtis bullshit” – fate stepped in. While Hawley rightly disapproves of northern cities being caricatured as “grim,” there are few happy endings for people with little control over their lives. The personal story of the well-to-do Poppy (played by Laura Pitt-Pulford) is the exception, working through her angst with the hint of settling down in a further instalment of the drama, yet to be written. Her closing dialogue with Nikki (Lauryn Redding) was beautifully scripted and left not a dry eye in the house.

Hawley says: “”I was absolutely determined it wasn’t going to be finger-wagging – someone stood on a soap box telling people how to think. All you have to do is tell the story because what has happened to our country is so dramatic.” Indeed, all too often, we have come to expect “issues” to be raised as part of the social conscience and ethical duty of the playwright, but in a play like this – one that is expressly political in context – it was good to find that we weren’t being preached at. Admittedly, racism reared its ugly head as an unpleasant reminder of the period, but it was a necessary undercurrent rather than something to beat us over the head with. Similarly, the story relied upon the audience understanding the rise, decline and revitalisation of the Park Hill flats and while gentrification was hinted at, the downsides were matched by the upsides. Thatcher, Kinnock… and Nick Clegg were ridiculed in equal measure.

The honesty and brutality of the situations spoke for themselves and that is what sold this production. It was good to go to a theatrical performance – especially one with a mix of historical and contemporary context – where the audience is allowed to engage on its own merits. In an interview with The List, Hawley said that “you can tell when a voice is authentic – whether the spirit of it is for real or just bullshit.”

Here the drama, pure and simple, has been relied upon to convince the audience to emotionally invest in the characters and to be moved by Hawley’s lyrical ability to carry the story along. Amongst the hopes and fears, individual realities and personal tragedies, this musical also managed to remind us of the healthy desire for social improvement and economic betterment. If that sounds worthy, I am not doing it justice. The play – the musical – is an understated triumph.

Go see it.
Buy the record.

“Standing at the Sky’s Edge,” Gillian Lynne Theatre, Drury Lane, London until 3rd August 2024.

Image: Khoa Võ/Pexels

Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

Share This Post On
468 ad