Standing at Sky’s Edge review – Richard Hawley is pulling at the heartstrings in his work in Sheffield

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This musical “love letter to Sheffield” stems from the idea that the walls of a building retain the imprints of its occupants, past and present.

The building here is the city’s Park Hill housing estate, its interior and exterior skilfully created on stage, and its residents drooling over each other for 60 years. Dramatized with music by Richard Hawley, we see how the nation’s political gyroscopes leave their marks on the lives of three families and the city, from 1960 to Thatcherism, Brexit and beyond. The estate inevitably drifted towards nobility until today it is a Grade II* listed trophy building.

It reaches the heart and squeezes it … Samuel Jordan (Jimmy) and Faith Omole (Joy).

It reaches the heart and squeezes it … Samuel Jordan (Jimmy) and Faith Omole (Joy). Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Directed by Robert Hastie, the theater seems to be enjoying itself as the three sets of characters move around the set together, in their own parallel worlds. There is little story between songs at first and stock characters appear in Chris Bush’s book. A slightly over-the-top steel-working family decimated by Thatcher’s union-busting, Liberian refugees crying out for British out-of-season food and southerner Poppy (Alex Young) who moves in after the estate coaxes its working-class residents to speak pointedly. of Ottolenghi and Ocado.

But it grows into a glorious love letter indeed, revealing a big heart, boom and a great sound. Hawley’s music and lyrics stand front and center in the production, characters often make their first entrance through song and sometimes break out of sight to play a number, microphone in hand, as if at a gig.

The uniformed team is strong and their singing is excellent. Faith Omole’s voice has the deep rich sound of Amy Winehouse’s songs and Maimuna Memon’s songs are emotional. Ensemble numbers give a shiver. Feet tap, spines tingle. We find ourselves squirming in our seats. Coupled with its beautiful movement, the show becomes an unrelenting triumph, unrelenting in its complications.

Originally staged in Sheffield, it is perfectly suited to the Olivier stage. A (impressive) band sits on a mezzanine terrace in Ben Stone’s stunning suite on the outside of the estate, with the interior space below. The graffitied words “I love you will you marry me”, a city landmark, hang above, like one of Tracey Emin’s romantic neon signs.

Related: ‘Richard Hawley gets it!’ Park Hill Sheffield residents recommend music

There is unabashed sentimentality in the intersecting storylines. Characters remain thinly drawn but we begin to care what happens to them until we are rapt, crying, with bated breath. Joy (Omole) and Jimmy’s (Samuel Jordan) romance reaches for and tugs at the heartstrings. Poppy’s broken relationship with Nikki (Memon) creates strong drama, and there are some great smiley sequences with Poppy and her toffee-nosed mother.

The latter is very spirited but does not take the full swing into the happy ending we expect, with the sentimentality melted by Bush’s comic book. As one character self-consciously says while making romantic gestures, this is “Richard Curtis bullshit”. It could be, but it is extremely moving all the same. One word of advice for those willing: take tissues.

• It stands at Sky’s Edge at the National Theater until 25 March.

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