A musical with a difference - Richard Hawley’s songs and Sheffield’s iconic Park Hill estate

Rehearsals for new musical Standing at the Sky's Edge. (Pictures: Johan Persson).
Rehearsals for new musical Standing at the Sky's Edge. (Pictures: Johan Persson).
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As an ambitious new musical about the Park Hill flats opens in Sheffield, Nick Ahad speaks to director Robert Hastie.

One of the reasons Yorkshire theatre has enjoyed such a purple patch of late is because of the scale of ambition of the people running the region’s theatres.

Richard Hawley whose songs provide the backdrop to the musical. (Chris Etchells).

Richard Hawley whose songs provide the backdrop to the musical. (Chris Etchells).

With shows like Sunshine on Leith at Leeds Playhouse, The Railway Children at York Theatre Royal and any of the Hull Truck offerings in the year of City of Culture, Yorkshire theatre has staked and won its claim of being the strongest in the country’s regions. Another enormous success story is Sheffield Theatres, the largest theatre complex in Britain outside of London’s National Theatre.

The theatres which make up the complex – the Crucible, the Studio and the Lyceum – have enjoyed an extraordinary run of success over the past decade with a recent highlight being the West End transfer of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. The smart money will be on the theatre’s latest production continuing the run of success. It’s the ambition, you see, of Standing at the Sky’s Edge.

A new musical is an ambitious thing for a theatre to create. A new musical featuring the music of Richard Hawley is a world first and has been drawing international attention since it was announced last year. “It is wonderful and kind of extraordinary that a show made in Sheffield has been causing ripples around the world. Having people from literally all over the globe calling our box office is a slightly strange thing, but it’s pretty amazing thing too,” says Robert Hastie.

He is the man who is at the helm of Standing at the Sky’s Edge, a musical written by Chris Bush and featuring the music and songs of Mercury Prize double nominee Richard Hawley. Directing any new musical is a challenge, directing one on this scale is something else. Hastie, the artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, is the man for the job. The musical tells the story of Park Hill, the flats that stand on the Sheffield skyline as a monument to the city’s storied history. The idea for the musical came from producer Rupert Lord, who approached Hastie after first speaking with Hawley to gauge his interest.

“He had this absolutely bonkers idea. He’d read an article about 
Clare Middleton [we’ll come back to that] and had become really interested in it as a story. He had worked in the music industry and so knew Richard and approached him with the idea for a musical. Once Richard had stopped laughing he started thinking about it. Then Rupert came to us and we ran with the idea,” says Hastie.

Clare Middleton, as many from the Steel City will know, is a name synonymous with Park Hill. The story remains somewhat shrouded in mystery, but she was the subject of a graffitied marriage proposal which adorned Park Hill 13 storeys up for several years from 2001 before being immortalised in neon when developers Urban Splash took over the buildings.

A council housing estate built in the late 1950s, to the dreamers who designed it, it’s a streets-in-the-sky paradise for the workers of a great city. To successive governments, it’s a symbol of everything they’d rather ignore. To the people who live there, it’s home.

It is these competing emotional attachments to the often controversial Park Hill flats that made it the perfect subject for a musical and with his attachment to the city he still calls home, Hawley was the right man to provide the music. “Over the development of the story we have stepped away from the story of Clare Middleton, because that’s not really our story to tell,” says Hastie. “What the writer Chris has done is take the story of a current and a former resident, along with some of the hundreds of other stories, and done an amazing job of being inspired by those stories and woven a narrative by putting them together. There is an amazing buzz around the theatre and the city about this play. Every day someone comes up to me and tells me their story of what Park Hill means to them.”

The theatre faces Park Hill and it is clear that there is a real sense of responsibility with this production.

“This feels like an incredibly home grown production made by two great talents from the city. It is the story of Park Hill, but it also feels like the story of the country.”

The secret weapon in Hastie’s arsenal with this production is, of course, Richard Hawley.

“I know his appeal stretches around the world – just before we announced the musical I was at a wedding in Toronto and the song Tonight the Streets Are Ours came on and everyone in the reception loved it. I realised that his voice carries a very long way. An album can travel further than a piece of theatre ever could.”

That’s true. But you suspect this piece of theatre might well resonate a very long way.

High-rise living

The Brutalist Park Hill complex, opened in 1961, has had a turbulent history. In 1998 it became Grade II listed, making it the largest listed building in Europe. In 2006 Urban Splash began to develop the complex, with the renovation being shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Price in 2013. “When Park Hill opened it was the future, it was a a solution to social housing built on the slums in Sheffield,” says Hastie. “Whole streets of residents from areas of Sheffield were housed together. Even though it went through some tough times, the streets in the sky were also an incredible place.”

At Sheffield Crucible, to April 6. Tickets 0114 2496000.