[Press tickets kindly #gifted in exchange for this review!]
Chronic illness-friendly: 4/5 (Dementia Friendly Performance: keep scrolling for more info!)
When my mum found out I would be seeing Sheffield Theatres’ Standing At The Sky’s Edge, she got me in the car and drove us to the Park Hill flats. She wanted me to see them properly for myself, and for me to stand on ‘Sky Edge’, looking out over Sheffield, just as she and her friends did when they were younger.
I had no idea that my immediate family and the generations before it had such a personal connection to the Park Hill flats, but it’s safe to say we’re not the only ones: the entire population of Sheffield knows something about them and their history. You could argue that it was only a matter of time before they became the subject of something bigger, and Sheffield Theatres did it absolutely beautifully.
Rich in the history of the city, Standing At The Sky’s Edge takes place in one flat over three periods of time: the 60s, the 80s and the early millennium. We’re introduced to three female protagonists from widely varying social backgrounds, and flit between their stories as the years pass by and significant events occur, both in their own lives and in the world around them.
The earliest inhabitants, newly-wed Rose (Rachael Wooding) and her husband, move into the flat utterly content at having their own space. They experience hardships ranging from difficulty conceiving, to redundancy from the closing of steelworks factories, to the resulting clutches of chronic addiction and alcoholism. The second inhabitant, young school-girl Joy (Faith Omole), reluctantly arrives as a Liberian immigrant in the care of her aunt, unsure of where her parents are or whether they’re even still alive. She faces racial abuse but seeks solace in an unexpected ally, and finds herself facing challenges completely unforeseen by herself and her family. The final inhabitant is Poppy (Alex Young), moving to Sheffield solo to start afresh and escape the ghosts of her London life. Her subsequent battles show that unfortunately, feelings can’t be escaped as simply as by packing up a suitcase and running away.
Each character and their circumstances differ drastically, but they all have two things in common. Firstly, underlying resilience in the face of truly bleak and desperate times. Secondly, they’re part of a community. They belong to these flats, and to Sheffield, whether they realise it yet or not. And I have no words for how talented each of these three female leads were: how subtly yet effectively they portrayed their characters’ development as they age, and how easily they won the hearts of the audience. In fact, the entire cast, including Sheffield People’s Theatre, was outstanding.
Jumping back and forth between different storylines and different eras in time is no easy feat, and I was so impressed with the ease at which Ben Stones’ creative team pulled this off. Digital boxes suspended above the stage were used to visibly display the current year and the passing of time between scenes, but even without these, the attention to detail in the props and costuming, as well as the thoughtful staging and choreography, meant that there was no room for confusion.
The set design, the flat itself, stayed exactly the same throughout. And the beauty of being in the Crucible, in the round, meant that for the audience, it was quite literally like looking through somebody’s window into their home. There was something touchingly metaphorical about this basic, functional flat remaining a constant as the time passes and society lurches from one uncertainty to another.
Something I always associate with Sheffield Theatres productions is how creative they manage to be with such minimal *stuff*, if you will, being an external distraction. Another thing is how seamless their transitions between scenes are. I will say that in my opinion, the dance choreography seemed a bit too contemporary and alternative: somewhat out of the place with the overall feel of the show, and I did notice a bit of disengagement around me when that happened. It seemed a bit of a push to have working-class characters from the steel factory standing on tables and swaying dramatically,
However, the rest of the choreography and staging was on point, and effortlessly facilitated the atmosphere of each scene. There were points in the performance where we had characters from all the different eras coexisting beside each other on stage, dialogue rapidly flitting between them, and yet you didn’t lose track (even me, with my foggy brain and somewhat limited attention span). That’s a huge testament to Robert Hastie’s direction.
With such a powerful context, talented cast and crew, and Richard Hawley’s beautiful music and lyrics, it’s unsurprising that this one was an emotional and at times difficult watch: the production didn’t hold back in portraying some of the bleak hardships that the working class of Sheffield has experienced over the years.
It was tough viewing, particularly one key scene towards the end of act two that had me needing a hug, but again, I appreciated this. It was refreshing to see a regional show telling it how it was and how it is, without any of that over-enforced jolly hand-holding and kumayaaa-ing. The subtlety of community spirit and the take-home messages made them, in my opinion, all the more effective.
There were so many moments that caused the audience to wipe away a tear, but for me, it didn’t quite *get* me the way that other productions have. Arguably that could be because I’m from a younger generation, but funnily enough, the exact same thing happened with Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. I recognised that what was on stage was an emotive moment and beautifully portrayed, but it didn’t fully squish me into an emotional mess.
But… I’m not mad about it. Different things resonate with different people for different reasons. That’s the beauty of something as subjective as theatre, and it’s why I love writing and talking about it so much. Even though I wasn’t a snotty ball of a human being at this one, I fully appreciated a beautiful production that clearly means so much to so many people. And there’s no doubt in my mind that it will be talked about for years to come.
Chronic illness-friendly review – DEMENTIA-FRIENDLY PERFORMANCE
I was so thrilled to be invited to a Dementia Friendly performance: it’s currently such a unique initiative and I was curious about the logistics of it all. You can find out more about Dementia Friendly performances here, but the gist of it is that the performance is slightly adapted to make it more comfortable for audience members, staff are prepared and equipped to assist individuals and help them make the most of their visit, and a more informal viewing experience among all audience members is encouraged.
As for the performance itself, the house lights remained slightly up and I noticed frequent moments where the lighting likely had been adjusted to be less overwhelming: no strobing, and more graded changes, making it less severe on sensitive eyes and brains. And as a vocal member of the sensitive eyes and brains club, this was appreciated by me too.
I will say that I found the music, even in its softened state, to be quite intrusive. With a talented live band I recognise that there’s only so much you can do, but if I found the loud bass beat of the drums to be uncomfortable and overwhelming, my guess is that those with dementia could too. You could also argue that this particular production, with its large cast and rolling timeframes, isn’t the easiest in the world to follow for those with cognitive impairments.
But above all else, it was the lengths which the Access Team had gone to, to ensure accessibility, that was the most impressive thing of all. There were plenty of staff scattered around the auditorium and theatre, wearing recognisable tees and Dementia Friends badges to show their training, ready to assist wherever they could. There were even volunteers holding signs and directing people to the toilets: something so simple, which could make such a huge difference.
Staff were visibly yet subtly going above and beyond to be a friendly and welcoming face to all audience members, and that to me was the definition of what accessible theatre is: taking the time to understand people’s needs, working out how you can address them, and doing your best to accommodate everybody in a relaxed and friendly manner.
I know, I know I’m biased, but Sheffield Theatres really are leading the pack when it comes to inclusive theatre. You can find out more on their website, but don’t just take my word for it: if you’re wanting to see a show but worried about your requirements, get in touch and speak to the team yourself. I guarantee you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Press tickets kindly #gifted in exchange for this review. See What’s On at Sheffield Theatres here, and let me know what you’re seeing next. If you liked this review, you may like my other stagey posts too!