Richard Hawley writes musical about Sheffield's Park Hill estate

Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which features old and new songs by the musician, will play at the city’s Crucible theatre

The singer and songwriter Richard Hawley will explore the history of the giant Park Hill estate that overlooks Sheffield in his first stage musical, to be performed at the city’s Crucible theatre next year.

The show, which shares the name of the Sheffield musician’s acclaimed 2012 album Standing at the Sky’s Edge, will feature a mix of old and new songs by Hawley as it spans 50 years in the lives of Park Hill residents.

The utopian council estate, built on the concept of “streets in the sky”, opened in 1961 and its brutalist design divided Sheffielders. After Park Hill fell into decline, it was Grade II listed in 1998 and underwent an upmarket, Stirling prize-shortlisted redevelopment which is not yet completed and which some say does not offer enough social housing provision.

The musical, according to Hawley, is an attempt “to get a sort of history of postwar Britain through the housing that they built and how that affected people”. The singer-songwriter says that such housing was “like a planner’s dream when it started off – this miracle solution to slums and obviously the desperate need for housing after the war because Britain suffered so much heavy bombing”.

Robert Hastie, who will direct Standing at the Sky’s Edge, says Park Hill still “provokes a lot of feeling in the city. Looking out from my office window, I can see a huge edifice, one half of which has been redeveloped while the other half is still derelict and empty.”

Old and new ... Park Hill estate.
Old and new ... Park Hill estate. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Hastie calls Hawley “the soul of Sheffield” and says the singer belongs to “that rich heritage of Sheffield musicians who are deeply politicised but express their politics through personal, intimate stories in their songs”. He described Hawley’s musical as similar to the TV series Our Friends in the North in that “it focuses on a small group of characters, a community, but through them tells a wider story about the last half-century of British history. It’s local history – this is a Sheffield story – but everywhere has its Park Hill, buildings that are a legacy of successive governments’ failures to grapple with public housing.”

Before building a successful solo career with albums including the Mercury prize-nominated Coles Corner, named after a romantic Sheffield landmark, Hawley played guitar with the bands Longpigs and Pulp. The latter’s song Sheffield: Sex City, an urban odyssey of arousal, features the line: “Everyone on Park Hill came in unison at 4.13am.”

The idea of a stage production about Park Hill was developed by the director Matthew Dunster, who had a hit with Martin McDonagh’s play Hangmen. Dunster “kind of tracked me down” said Hawley. “He came to see me on tour when I was in Portugal … He told me about the idea. I think he thought I would just tell him to go forth and multiply, you know? But I liked the concept.” He commented that the old songs of his that are used in the production sound radically different in their new context.

The Crucible’s production Everybody’s Talking About Jamie transferred to the West End in London.
The Crucible’s production Everybody’s Talking About Jamie transferred to the West End in London. Photograph: Alastair Muir

As a teenager, Hawley was “one of the first people through the doors” to join the Crucible’s youth theatre. While Standing at the Sky’s Edge is his first stage musical, he said he hadn’t found the process difficult but instead found himself “writing like mad” through the workshops they had to develop the show. The music and lyrics are by Hawley and the book is by Merseyside playwright Michael Wynne.

Hastie took over as artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, comprising the Crucible, Lyceum and Studio, in 2016. He first visited the Crucible as a student and went on to perform there as an actor. “I love how much the town wants its theatre,” he said. “That’s not always a given and it’s miserable when it’s not the case. This is a town that’s proud of its theatre and loves its theatre, that wants to be challenged and adventurous.”

Standing at the Sky’s Edge runs at the Crucible from 14 March to 6 April 2019. Hastie’s 2018-19 season will include another play from a Sheffield writer, Steel by Chris Bush, which looks at women in the Labour party over the last few decades and will be directed by Rebecca Frecknall. Close Quarters by Kate Bowen, a co-production with Out of Joint, is a thriller about female soldiers directed by Kate Wasserberg. Hastie will stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream with music by the Feeling’s frontman Dan Gillespie Sells. The theatre is currently enjoying a success with the West End transfer of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, an award-winning musical composed by Sells and based on the real story of a Sheffield teenager who dreams of becoming a drag queen.


Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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