Tag Archives: Ben Stones

“Standing at the Sky’s Edge” at the Gillian Lynne Theatre

Originality is a big draw for this exciting new show from Richard Hawley. It’s about working-class people in Sheffield…which you don’t get very often. And the stories are told in a slightly different way. Events around three groups of characters, from different times, who live in the same tower block flat, are all interwoven.

Set in the 1960s, 1980s, and the present day, we take in a lot of history. From post-war optimism and immigration to industrial decline and unrest, then gentrification. And a good deal of attention is paid to the changing role of women. I’m not sure what a tourist crowd will make of it. But the book from playwright Chris Bush is skilful – nothing is overplayed, personal stories dominate, and these private lives are moving.

The narration is poetic (to a fault at times), beautifully delivered by Mel Lowe and deliberately contrasting in its grandiosity with the action. For it is ordinary people and “the traffic of life” that’s given attention. It’s a simple focus on romance but with such a large cast, and three big love affairs going on, the show feels inclusive and embracing. And, again, just that little bit different.

Elizabeth Ayodele and Samuel Jordan

There are stand-out performances in the show – but not stars in the way you might expect. We follow Rose and Harry over the course of their lives, so Rachel Wooding and Joel Harper-Jackson impress with their performances as these characters. Joy and Jimmy show us young love and Elizabeth Ayodele and Samuel Jordan bring huge charm to these parts. Meanwhile, Poppy and Nikki have problems in the present day and make angsty roles for Laura Pitt-Pulford and Lauryn Redding, who do a great job. The singing from all is fantastic. But this précis doesn’t reveal how much is going on.

Lauryn Redding and Laura Pitt-Pulford

Standing at the Sky’s Edge is constructed to give equal weight to the different stories. Even more, to highlight other characters and the ensemble who join them. It creates a very different feel as the whole cast take moments as leads. And when they all sing together, there are guaranteed goosebumps. The result is, at times, odd. An audience likes a focus. But through the talents of director Robert Hastie, it isn’t confusing. And the sense of place, of community, created is incredible. Originally from The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, via The National Theatre, Ben Stones’ excellent set and costume design help immeasurably here.

Above all, Hawley’s songs are fantastic. A great mix of styles with strong lyrics and a bold emphasis on big emotions. Not one number is bad, and plenty bring a tear to the eye. The show does lose momentum after a tremendous opening for act two. There are fewer songs and Bush’s dialogue starts to dominate. And, without giving to much away, things become morbid. A lot of time has been spent telling us Poppy and Nikki’s relationship is unhealthy, so it is odd to have it as some kind of happy ending.  I guess that at least the surprises keep coming. Standing at the Sky’s Edge is one of the most original musicals I’ve seen in a long time.

Until 3 August 2024


Photos by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg 

“The Suicide” at the National Theatre

There are some interesting ideas lurking within Suhayla El-Bushra’s new version of Nikolai Erdman’s comedy. The basis is brilliant – when a man announces he will take his own life he becomes hounded by those looking to use his death for their own ends. You might guess that the production updates the action to modern-day London (doesn’t everything?). More surprisingly, the satirical target is moved from Soviet Russia, not to the greed and inequality in our own times, but to left-leaning well- meaning folk. And El-Bushra replaces the State with social media – a neat move that offers insight and great satirical potential (after all, you can’t exaggerate online excess). Unfortunately, neither of these twists actually makes the play funnier than its original premise.

Mocking a desperate group of people living on a council estate is in questionable taste, aside from coming close to sitcom or reality TV show territory. More importantly, the treatment just isn’t witty enough. The script has a few risqué jokes but hardly any big laughs and a reliance on bad language for punchlines that is offensive in being so lazy. Director Nadia Fall doesn’t help, using a great-looking set (by Ben Stones) in a cumbersome manner and adding music and dance – presumably to appeal to a young audience – that may be good, but slows things down. There are frantic scenes, which the cast are well choreographed for, but the energy is wasted as stops and starts ruin the pace.

The collection of stereotypes that come to hassle our hero Sam aren’t all badly written. There’s a café-owning ex-PR girl, a teacher-performance-poet, local councillor, mental health worker, an old friend trying to hide an affair and assorted local youths. It’s a long play. All look for Sam to take the blame for something and to make a ‘statement’. But there’s an inverse relationship between characters where the satire has real bite, such as a despicable documentary filmmaker, and disappointing performances. Jokes are wasted with one-note delivery. Then some strong comic potential (Lizzie Winkler and Ayesha Antoine) isn’t given enough to do. It’s tempting to see an element of bad luck for El-Bushra here.

My intention was attend the scheduled press night, which was then postponed due to the indisposition of the lead, Javone Prince – surely the biggest misfortune for the show. However, the poorly presented main character is reduced to little more than a foolish bore, while scenes of Sam’s home life with his wife (a hard-working Rebecca Scroggs) and mother-in-law (the always excellent Ashley McGuire) achieve little. Yet the role was a triumph for Prince’s understudy, Adrian Richards, who gave a performance that has made me want to post this review despite it being, strictly speaking, about a preview. Richards’ comic timing is among the best of the night and he managed to give Sam a lost, youthful, appeal. Richards’ valiant efforts lifted the atmosphere for the whole evening. Luck at last, but little to do with the show’s actual merits.

Until 25 June 2016


Photo by Johan Persson