Review: Standing at the Sky’s Edge

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If one characteristic defines Sheffield, its people, and its history, it would be firm and ubiquitous optimism in the face of unprecedented struggle. Standing at the Sky’s Edge is a love letter to Sheffield. Or, rather, a love letter to three different Sheffields – for this production charts the hopes, dreams, illusions and disillusions of three generations across six turbulent decades in this city’s history.

Initially staged in Sheffield at the Crucible, Standing at the Sky’s Edge has since been taken up by the National Theatre and is now in residence at the Gillian Lynne Theatre in the West End. Directed by Robert Hastie and written by Chris Bush, the songs are written by Richard Hawley.

Central to the success of this production is its stage design. Great concrete cubes are stacked at the heart of the stage, the varying levels and dimensions enhancing the dynamism of each scene. In the highest cube rests the orchestra, who accompany each scene with melodic and resplendent music, that is by degrees subtle, then startlingly engaging, the music rising and falling with the equilibrium and grace of an oncoming sea.

Enfolded in music, the cast is ably assisted, but nonetheless the acting talent shines through, never drowned out by the musical accompaniment. Here we are in safe and skilled hands. Most notable are Jonathon Andre (Macbeth, Shakespeare’s Globe; The Lion King, Disney) playing the role of Max, and Elizabeth Ayodele (Small Island, National Theatre; Steel Magnolias, Trafalgar Theatre Productions) playing the role of Joy. Both are excellent, not only for their obvious talent, but for the passion with which they conduct each scene.

One invaluable facet of this production is the way the three narrative time strands unfurl alongside one another

The use of sound to illustrate the underrunning themes in this production is exquisite. A particularly impressive scene, at the end of the first act, features sections of Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 invocation of St Francis’s Prayer upon becoming Prime Minister, overlaying scenes of violence and strife. With the words, “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony” echoing in the background, the pivotal scene is filled with tragic irony, as the rightful hurt, angst and anger of the Sheffield-based characters shines out all the brighter.

In this timeless and stirring evocation, the cast and crew have delivered a real gem

One invaluable facet of this production is the way the three narrative time strands unfurl alongside one another. Remarkable in its conception, but sublime in its execution, is the way each era echoes one another. The years of each time are inscribed on boxes of light that are lowered from the rafters, serving as a clear, visual representation, that follows through into the costumes and subtle turns of phrase of each era’s actors.

In this timeless and stirring evocation, the cast and crew have delivered a real gem. Rich with emotional nuance, this production is a maelstrom of progress, love, pain and endurance. In this sense, this production embodies Sheffield, its people, and its history, doing justice to an intrinsic chapter in the history of this nation.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge will be in performance at the Gillian Lynne Theatre until 3 August 2024, in collaboration with National Theatre Productions. Tickets are available here.

Images: Holly Nicholls via National Theatre Productions

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