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Standing at the Sky's Edge - Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

This was a historic visit to Sheffield for me, as it marks the first time I have ever stayed in a Travelodge hotel. Check-in was quite seamless. I’ve had so many bad hotel experiences over the years that I’m easily impressed: the lift was working, I didn’t have to wait an eternity for it, and the key card was working (which is more than can be said for my stay at the Hilton when I was in Dublin a few years ago). Unlike a previous Premier Inn stay in Leicester the electrics worked fine, without me having to change rooms, and my Travelodge room feels cleaner.

Their prices were lower in Sheffield than the nearby easyHotel, whose rooms are so miniscule it is entirely possible, without difficulty, for me to place my left hand on one side of the room and my right hand on the other. The bathtub at the Travelodge is hopelessly small, and although it’s of little consequence to me as I hardly have any hair on my head these days, there isn’t a hairdryer in the room. But the temperature in the shower is easily adjustable, which is far from the case in every establishment. And why were Typhoo tea bags in my room? I’m in Yorkshire: it should be Yorkshire Tea.

Sheffield city centre being what it is, I was spoiled for choice for places to eat, and unlike Swansea, which I visited last weekend, restaurants were happy to accept walk-ins, without the need for me to resort to queuing for a good twenty minutes at a branch of Five Guys, that soulless overpriced burgers and fries chain. I’m not sure I want to bother with a Travelodge unlimited breakfast again though. The sausages were dry and stodgy, and the hash browns looked so limp and wet I dare not help myself to any lest they disintegrated whilst being transferred to my plate. Their little sachets of condiments are a far cry from the bottles of ketchup and brown sauce at Premier Inn. Travelodge breakfast is very popular, though, judging by the turnout on a Sunday morning. I was sufficiently filled up, but I did wish I’d gone out in search of a Wetherspoons or Greene King pub, or a local Sheffield greasy spoon.

The only ‘drama’ occurred on the National Express – with the number of passengers wanting to head to Sheffield, extra coaches were laid on throughout the day because of industrial action on the railways. The journey I had booked on had two coaches, but with minutes to go before the timetabled departure time from Victoria Coach Station, still only one had showed up. So the driver, having permitted myself and the others who had paid extra to reserve seats in the first few rows, started filling his coach up anyway, even though he was meant to keep a number of spaces free for passengers who were due to board at Golders Green. The idea was to depart full from Victoria, skip Golders Green, and if the other coach did turn up, that would have to go to Golders Green instead.

We were just about to go – when the other coach arrived, the one that was supposed to take the load off the timetabled service and go direct to Sheffield without calling at either Golders Green or Chesterfield. In other words, National Very Express. Cue another round of working out who should be on which coach. Rightly or wrongly, I stayed put. I had my reserved seat and I wasn’t giving it up, thank you very much. I don’t regret not leaving for the ‘other’ coach, even if it was meant to get to Sheffield a lot quicker – we left about half an hour after we should have done, and pulled into Sheffield Interchange about half an hour after we should have done. Hardly the end of the world. But there was a lot of anger, frustration and confusion from other passengers. Luckily, as I said, I was with other people who reserved their seats, and there was a lot of laughter from our lot at the absurdity of it all as everyone else around us was herded on, before being herded off again, only for more confusion to arise at Golders Green when more than the pre-allocated number of passengers were waiting to board.

Thank goodness, then, for Standing at the Sky’s Edge. Reminiscent of the Crucible Theatre’s production of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the last musical hit from this regional theatre powerhouse, an eight-piece band, led by John Rutledge, is positioned above the stage. The show is set entirely in Park Hill. Located in central Sheffield, it is a few minutes’ walk from the Crucible Theatre (I popped along to see it for myself the following morning, as my coach back to London wasn’t leaving until 12:45pm), and these days it looks reasonable from the outside, but as the show points out, it went through a period of significant decline, with people moving away during the 1980s as Sheffield’s famed steel industry faded thanks to the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government, with 50,000 steel and engineering jobs in the region lost between 1980 and 1983.

Such was the plight suffered by Harry (Robert Lonsdale). Married to Rose (Rachael Wooding) and with a son, James, he becomes socially and psychologically paralysed when given his marching orders from the place where he thought he would have a job for life. I still recall all our cutlery was ‘Made in Sheffield’ back in the day, and so was everyone else’s. The devastating impact of the country’s shift away from manufacturing into service industries (but, at the time, there was nothing for the manufacturing (ex) workers to retrain for) is brutally portrayed here.

The end of the first act really goes for it in its portrayal of Park Hill as a magnet for violence and deprivation at the height of unemployment struggles – people were, understandably, more than a little upset at losing their livelihoods. The narrative time-hops between decades, with the earliest scene in 1960 and the latest fifty years later. But it never becomes confusing, partly because there are on-stage signs from time to time telling the audience what year it ‘is’, partly because the various characters are dressed in clothes appropriate to each era, and partly because the narrative groups together a particular theme or major event and looks at how each of the three generations represented approached it.

The General Elections of 1979, 1992 and 2017 are cases in point, which brought all sorts of things to mind, including that rally at Sheffield (!) Arena in which Neil Kinnock, then Labour Party leader, took to the stage having been introduced as ‘the next Prime Minister’ and attempted a bizarre and brash performance that some thought effectively lost Labour the election, though in hindsight it didn’t appear to have made much difference either way. Not that there’s a re-enactment of that in the play, but Kinnock’s voice could be distinctly heard, as could Margaret Thatcher giving that ‘where there is discord’ speech of hers.

But you need not possess a socio-political knowledge of Sheffield in particular or Britain in general to follow this musical, heavy as it is on spoken dialogue, with the musical numbers – wonderfully diverse in style and tone – varying between driving forward the narrative and revealing some deep and meaningful emotions (and, occasionally, both). Henderson’s Relish, a condiment native to Sheffield, is lovingly used across the generations: Grace (Deborah Tracey), who moved to Park Hill alongside George (Baker Mukasa) and Joy (Faith Omole) to escape (I think) the First Liberian Civil War (1989-1997), had no idea what it was, but was astute enough to know it is important to the people of Sheffield, and so many people can’t possibly be wrong about this product. Her pride in bringing it home from the market to show the others went down well with the locals in the audience. I have to confess – I’ve never used Henderson’s Relish, and it wasn’t even something available in the restaurant at Travelodge Sheffield Central.

The most recent resident in this mega-story is Poppy (Alex Young), who moved to Park Hill in 2015 – she and her parents, Charles (Adam Price) and Vivienne (Nicola Sloane) are from that place called The South, with Vivienne being nothing short of snobbish, still encouraging her daughter to move to London. An interesting subplot with Poppy’s ex, Nikki (Maimuna Memon) is a feisty example of true love being fought for despite all the odds and circumstantial evidence suggesting otherwise.

The staging, I must say, is a delight to witness – the various entrances and exits, and different storylines overlapping both literally and figuratively, makes the show a fine tapestry. When Joy is older, she starts a relationship with local lad Jimmy (a hugely likeable Samuel Jordan), though they had become friends years before. Theirs is a relationship portrayed with ferocious honesty about life in the real world for young working class people, doing shift work at different times and becoming like ships passing in the night. As someone who only very, very occasionally has to miss a theatre show I wanted to see due to work commitments, it was a difficult story to watch, and it’s still the reality for many people, perhaps more so than ever.

And that’s the thing about Standing at the Sky’s Edge – I didn’t enjoy all of it, because there are bits that frankly aren’t meant to be enjoyed. Go watch a Disney movie if you want a happily ever after story. This gritty and engaging musical is nothing short of phenomenal.

Five stars (for those who insist on star ratings)

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