Who would have thought that a musical about the Brutalist residential area of Park Hill in Sheffield could be so uplifting? Playwright Chris Bush has adapted the thrilling earworms of her compatriot, acclaimed singer-songwriter Richard Hawley, into a mesmerizing three-way narrative about the utopian post-war conception of development, the decline of the 1980s and the 21st century yuppie rebirth.
This is not only a moving human story, but also an interaction between modernist concrete buildings: Park Hill, the National and the Crucible, where Sheffield Theatres’ Artistic Director Robert Hastie first put on the show in 2019. Even after his trip to London, it is still defiantly married to Sheffield, with jokes about the city’s two football teams and the residents’ hatred of Leeds. While the detail is local, the message about community, pride and the double-edged sword of gentrification is universal.
Even though Sheffield’s blood runs like blood through Hawley’s output, not all of the songs used here fit their theatrical repurposing. Both individual and interconnected elements of the three storylines are a little too neat. But this remains a huge achievement by Hastie and Bush, one of our most prolific and gripping writers: a bold step forward for musical theatre, bringing working-class steel from the North to the South Bank.
In 1960, we see the bubbly Rose and her affectionate yet chauvinistic foreman, husband Harry, gratefully move from slums to these bright, airy “streets in the sky.” Nearly three decades later, their son Jimmy clicks with Liberian refugee Joy in the now meager estate. Back to 2015, and London professional Poppy buys a flat in the now renovated, fashionable and futuristic telegenic block to escape her ex-fiancée Nikki. “Polish some concrete, gerrit on Doctor Who, and people think it’s nirvana,” as dazzling real estate agent Connie puts it.
All three core stories are about love and aspiration thwarted by internal tensions or external forces. There is anger here at the Thatcher destruction of northern industry, but also ambivalence at Cool Britannia-style urban renewals involving social cleansing. Northern working class culture is both celebrated and criticized, especially when it comes to traditional gender roles. Lynne Page’s cheerful choreography is inspired by dancehall.
The title track and the closing act of the first act, There’s a Storm A-Comin’, roll over you like a powerful wave, and For Your Lover Give Some Time is heartbreakingly beautiful. As Nikki, Maimuna Memon unleashes her reliably mighty pipes on Open Up Your Door.
But one of the nice things about the show is that anyone can control a song, and strong voices are heard everywhere: from Rachael Wooding’s feisty Rose and Robert Lonsdale’s subtly weak Harry; Faith Omole’s Joy and Bobbie Little’s Connie – who is underused as a connecting figure between the eras and as an occasional commentator and narrator.
This is a democratic, demotic work in which the cast and set of Ben Stones – complete with Park Hill’s famous neon sign replicating the original graffiti scrawl “I love you will you marry me” – appear to be in direct conversation with the audience and the hall. . Crushing.
National Theatre, until March 25, nationaltheater.org.uk