Chris Bond spoke to the musician and writer Chris Bush.
Few housing estates have attracted as much scrutiny and, at times, notoriety as Sheffield’s Park Hill.
When it opened in 1961, the mammoth estate was hailed as one of the most ambitious inner city housing schemes of its time, and in a country still struggling to find its feet less than two decades after the end of the Second World War, it was seen as a glimpse into a bold, bright future.
Such hopes sadly proved unfounded and by the Eighties the flats were dilapidated and the area became notorious for drugs and crime. Despite this, English Heritage gave it Grade II-listed status in 1997, making the brutalist complex Europe’s largest listed building and preventing it from being demolished.
Over the past decade developer Urban Splash has regenerated swathes of the sprawling estate transforming the ailing flats into fashionable apartments, and now Park Hill is the focus of a new musical of all things.
Standing At The Sky’s Edge brings together three Sheffield icons: musician Richard Hawley, the Crucible Theatre and Park Hill’s “streets in the sky.”
The musical is essentially a love song to Park Hill – where there’s “hope hung on every washing line” – and the people that have lived there. It tells the story of three families and their ups and downs, accompanied by a soundtrack of Hawley’s songs.
The narrative for this sweeping tale has been written by Sheffield-born playwright Chris Bush, best known for TONY! The Blair Musical, who only became involved in the project last summer. “Considering how long musicals can take it’s been an incredibly quick turnaround,” she says.
Though she now lives in London, Bush grew up in Walkley, a suburb of Sheffield where her parents still live, and knows the city well.
“It’s not a black and white story,” Bush says of Park Hill. “I do think there’s some sort of nostalgia attached to it. When it opened it was seen as a utopian ideal and people loved it, and then it became a story of inevitable decline and now people have very mixed feelings about the estate and who gets to call it home, and we’re embracing that sense of ambiguity. We don’t shy away from the fact that people have very differing opinions on Park Hill.”
At the same time, she’s keen to point out that Standing At The Sky’s Edge, taken from the title of Hawley’s 2012 album, isn’t a piece of agitprop. “It’s not espousing some kind of political manifesto. We’re telling human stories that speak to a wider audience.”
The stories in the musical are inspired by the experiences of people who have lived in Park Hill, which creates added pressure.
“You can see Park Hill out of the window here,” says Bush, gesturing towards the flats that loom large just a mile or so away.
“People who live there will be coming to see the show so that’s a huge pressure but it’s also exciting. I’m sure somebody will see something and go ‘that wasn’t my experience’ and of course you can’t speak for everyone who lived there, but we have been speaking to people that did and collecting stories.”
Creating the musical, she says, has been a bit like piecing together a jigsaw. “It’s not a conventional musical, it’s kind of a gig and a play sitting on top of one another. The way the music interacts with the drama doesn’t revolve around two characters singing a love duet to one another.
“The difficulty with jukebox musicals is trying not to crowbar songs into a story that doesn’t quite fit. So we haven’t been trying to and make sense of Richard’s music in a narrative way, instead the songs reflect more the mood of what’s happening at a given moment.”
So what’s it been like working with Hawley? “Richard’s been brilliantly open to collaboration and has been there as a sounding board. At the same time he’s been respectful of us as artists and has let us get on with it and try things out.”
And she’s pleased with how the musical has come together. “It’s not a documentary but I think fundamentally it’s a story about home. It is specific to Park Hill, but at the same time it’s universal and addresses the idea of what it means to call somewhere home and that speaks to everyone.”
For Hawley, who’s never done a musical before, this has been a new experience. “I was a bit suspicious to begin with. I wasn’t saying ‘oh brilliant, let’s do a musical’. I didn’t just feel like a square peg in a round hole, I felt like a dodecahedron.
“But once we got going I ended up writing a lot of new songs and three ended making the grade that they liked.”
The musical is built around these and some of his pre-existing songs.
“It’s a bit like a tailor’s dummy,” he says. “I didn’t think I could tailor-make songs but I’ve discovered through this process that I can. But I don’t want to lay claim to sitting in a room agonising over it or anything. They hung their suit on my peg.”
Some musicians can be precious about their songs, but he was happy for Bush and co to dissect them. “One of the creative people said ‘do you mind if we try and take them apart?’ And I said, ‘please, do whatever you want with them’. That was the most exciting thing for me, to see what somebody would do with a pre-existing piece of music – to rip it apart and turn it into something else.”
As well as Hawley’s music, Standing At The Sky’s Edge is all about Park Hill and as someone who grew up in the city (and still lives there today), he’s familiar with its controversial legacy. “It’s not somewhere I’m intimately familiar with, but I’ve been up there with various people over the years. I was in bands with people who lived there, or grew up there.”
The story of Park Hill is also in many ways a microcosm of the story of the city itself, and the post-war North. “This country was bankrupt after the war and in Sheffield that block of flats was a genius solution. It had indoor heating for free by burning the waste at the bottom. People had views of the skies they probably never dreamed of seeing. They were clean, and disease and child mortality went down massively during that time.”
It was a dream, sadly, that turned sour, suffering from the fallout of the decline of traditional heavy industries and the rise of Thatcherism that left an indelible mark on many northern towns and cities.
Hawley feels that Park Hill has become a bit of a “political football” over the years. “It’s like a damaged rainbow, in that it doesn’t quite make an arc, but its story isn’t over. Ultimately, it’s about the stories of the people who live there and that’s what we wanted to portray,” he says.
“There will be some people who don’t like it, or worse still are indifferent about it. It’s an experiment – that’s how I see it.
“If I’d made this on my own it would have been very different, but it’s a collaboration and when you’re working with other people you have to fall in love with them and trust them, because it’s like a temporary marriage, and I have done.”
Standing At The Sky’s Edge, runs at the Crucible from March 15 to April 6. For tickets call Box Office 0114 249 6000 or go to www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk