Park Hill flats have stood over Sheffield for nearly 60 years, as much a part of the city’s history as steel, snooker and Sean Bean. Once known as the Streets in the Sky, they began as vital social housing, before becoming a run down no-go area in the 1980s and 1990s, before today’s more gentrified incarnation that recently featured in This Is England and Doctor Who.
Standing at the Sky’s Edge, written by two of South Yorkshire’s finest talents, Chris Bush and Richard Hawley, cements the estate’s iconic status – and they’ve done Park Hill proud.
Bush’s book focuses on three families at different points in time: a young steelworker and his wife who move into the new estate in 1960, a refugee family in the 1980s who arrive just as the effects of Thatcherism start to bite and, in 2017, a woman from London who arrives to start a new life in Park Hill after a takeover by redevelopers Urban Splash.
The rich, beautifully interconnected script zips back and forth in time, and confirms Bush as one of the UK’s most exciting young playwrights, touching on moments of local history such as the pit closures and decline of the steel industry, while still finding time to mention such Sheffield traditions as Henderson’s Relish and the city’s rivalry with Leeds. The scale and ambition sometimes makes it feel like South Yorkshire’s version of Our Friends in the North.
Hawley’s music is the glue that holds the whole thing together – utilising a mixture of old and new songs, director Robert Hastie has wisely chosen not to make a jukebox musical, but to use Hawley’s music to reflect his characters’ emotions and stories, in a similar way that Girl From the North Country used Bob Dylan’s back catalogue. There are almost too many musical highlights to mention in Hastie’s deftly directed production, but Maimuna Memon’s haunting rendition of Open Up Your Door, and Faith Omole’s beautiful Coles Corner are among them, while Tom Deering’s arrangements give Hawley’s songs a new lease of life.
As usual with Bush’s work, some of the strongest characters are female, especially Rose (an appropriately steely performance from local actor Rachael Wooding), the woman determined to keep her family going after her husband loses his job, and Alex Young’s Poppy, whose air of quiet desperation as she tries to put her life back together is impossibly touching.
The emotion is amped up during the final moments, and as the ‘I Love U’ sign lights up on Ben Stones’ breathtaking set, it would take a heart of granite not to shed a tear. This is a production that will be close to any Sheffielder’s heart, but will also move anyone regardless of origin. It’s a show that deserves to be seen far and wide, and watched again and again. Tonight, the streets are indeed ours.