A knockout musical love letter

Living on a North London council housing estate for 18 years was a salutary experience. It was never dull; twenty-seven different languages were spoken there and everyday life was never the same. I occasionally lost the will to live, literally and metaphorically, but according to my alpha male uncle, it made me the man I am today. I’m still trying to work that one out. It’s not the most obvious subject matter for a musical but as British poet George (Lord) Byron said, “There is music in all things, if men had ears.”
Singer-songwriter Richard Hawley talks about his music being a love letter to his hometown of Sheffield and Standing at the Sky’s Edge (Gillian Lynne Theatre), with an emotionally churning book by Chris Bush, is one of those pieces of theatre that come along every so often to make you sit up and take notice of its originality and unabashed celebration of working class culture.
Charting the hopes and dreams of three generations over a sixty-year period, it reveals the realities of living on the brutalist Park Hill estate – there is a nice irony in that the show premiered at the Crucible, then came to the National and is now at the Gillian Lynne, all three having elements of modernism and brutalism in their style. Tough as it sounds, it is a heartfelt exploration of the power of community and Robert Hastie’s superb production is skilfully built, scene by scene, resonating with the idea that the walls of a building retain imprints of its inhabitants, past and present. The main characters all live in the same flat at different times.
Firstly, we see Harry (Joel Harper-Jackson) carrying bride Rose (Rachel Wooding) over the threshold into the brand-new flat in 1960. Idealistic bliss apparently but fast forward to 1989 and the city is spiralling downwards, decline and deprivation abound and so too the estate where Liberian teen refugee Joy (Elizabeth Ayodele) is now living. She hooks up with Jimmy (Samuel Jordan). By 2015, with the council encountering financial difficulties and the trend towards gentrification, the estate is sold off for the princely sum of one pound, into which comes Poppy, a kind of twenty first century ‘yuppie’ riddled with liberal idealism and parents who are frankly bonkers, otherwise described as eccentric. Different times, similar problems, a sink unit with a mind of its own. Their stories are told through song, resonant and soulful, each voice bringing its own expression of the heart and hilarity of their existence.
It feels very real watching it and apart from the occasional slip into sentimentality, some of the political references are perfunctory and without proper context, it buzzes with life, people and situations that are often taken for granted but difficult to navigate on a day-to-day basis. The poignancy and impact of the production is made that much stronger by the ensemble playing which gives it authenticity, emphasised by Hastie’s direction sometimes overlapping their lives into one time and one space. Bush’s writing is beautifully nuanced in picking out differences and commonalities and the visual embroidery of the edifice, made up of those notorious “concrete corridors in the sky”, a brutal symbol of their existence, is juxtaposed with moments when the whole company come together and sing, an orange glow bathing them in hope and love.
Hawley’s songs are the beating heart, and in each one, he connects the dots between people, their struggles and their joy. The ensemble singing in There’s a Storm A-Coming and the eponymous Standing at the Sky’s Edge is tremendous, goosebumps territory, and Open Up Your Door a gorgeous doleful lament of what could have been. A wonderful ensemble musical for and of our times.
Meanwhile, they say good theatre is thought provoking, but Athasha Lyonnais is angry…
How does one engage with art in the midst of a genocide? How much guilt is one expected to feel for the actions of their government? What do people mean when they ask us to “separate the art from the artist?” These are all questions that Nachtland (Young Vic), directed by Patrick Marber) would have you think about – but not too hard. Siblings Philipp and Nicola, along with their respective partners, are clearing out their late father’s attic when they find what appears to be a painting signed “A. Hitler”. Shock turns to consternation, and predictably, the family starts to think about how to turn a profit from the valuable grotesque. They, and by extension, the rest of Germany are left to ponder their own relationship to its fascist past and current prosperity.
Germany has a serious racism problem – the attacks on African and Arab immigrants in the press and real life are ever-present parts of Germany’s contemporary landscape – both of these things are not addressed or even alluded to in this play, which instead focuses solely on its antisemitic past – which of course is still ongoing – but also seems to bely a hugely myopic understanding of racism and fascism. It boldly asserts that bringing up the genocide of the Palestinian people by Israeli settlers is antisemitic, and then never brings up the issue again. This play, which as an aside has stolen heavily from Yazmina Reza’s Art – (I guess that German artists can’t help but forcefully claim ownership of Jewish art – maybe this play has a point ) – will not have the same impression on anyone who watched it, but should give you pause the next time you choose to watch such plays – as babies die in ICUs, as hospitals are vaporised. How does one engage with art in the midst of a genocide? By decrying anything that legitimises genocide and is in fact vicious, bloodthirsty propaganda.
INK (Sadler’s Wells) is an extraordinary work, a finely choreographed drama in which not a word is spoken. Dimitris Papaioannou choreographed it and performs with Šuka Horn in a fast-moving water-world on stage. The duo – one, older, clothed in black and the other, younger, naked – mutely struggle and confront each other on a journey towards awakening and rebirth. Papaioannou is Greek after all, and in his culture the flawed Gods of mythology and their human accomplices are familiar from childhood, forming a background hum of high drama, an awareness of human frailty and primal forces that cannot be contained.
On stage, the darkness is relieved only by the dancers, the play of light on water and the reflective surfaces of circular forms. There is poetry in the imagery, absurdity too. The work is intuitive, more the stuff of dreams and archetypes. The audience is left to sift through its impact for meaning, but, in the end, there’s permission to project and respond in a personal way, as a celebration of the power of human imagination.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge – www.skysedgemusical.com
Nachtland – www.youngvic.org
INK – run complete

Leave a Reply