When I was growing up in and around Sheffield, Park Hill Flats had something of a reputation. Not that such things stopped me from insisting Mum took me there in the late 1980s to buy a memory extension for my Sinclair Spectrum that I’d seen advertised in the local paper (she was terrified, but we met a very friendly and pleasant older chap who told us all about his – happy – experiences in his flat before we handed over our money and left with the goods). Since then, the flats have been (temporarily) emptied, gained Grade II* listed status and begun a period of rebirth, thanks to Urban Splash, as well as appearing several times in the latest series of Dr Who. Most recently, they have been the inspiration for a piece of rather splendid musical theatre featuring songs by Richard Hawley.
Written by Chris Bush, Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which first ran from the 15th of March to the 6th of April 2019 at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, tells the story of one Park Hill flat and three sets of residents, each inhabiting it through a different phase in the building’s history.
First to move in are a young steelworker and his wife; we follow them through the birth of their son James, the death of Sheffield’s steel industry and the rise of new, less stable, forms of employment. The initial highs and later lows of their relationship mirror the optimism felt at the opening of Park Hill Flats as “streets in the sky” in the late 1950s, followed by the area’s steady decline as the money for maintenance becomes ever more restricted. After James and his family leave, along with many others, the flat is given to a refugee couple and their young niece. She is befriended by a local lad – the older Jimmy – and the pair reach maturity together. Eventually, they too are moved on, and our final inhabitant – after the renovation – is Poppy, a Londoner fleeing a job and relationship that have both been making her unhappy and hoping to find new purpose and happiness in the now trendy Park Hill.
While my description above seems simple enough, the play itself was far more clever and complex. The three stories were told in parallel, with characters from two or more timelines playing out their stories in different parts of the single set, and with action sequences taking place on and above the main stage level. Some of the songs were very familiar to me from radio playlists while others were new to me, though probably very familiar to fans of Richard Hawley’s entire back catalogue. I particularly liked the way earlier inhabitants of the flat cropped up in the lives of their successors and was amused by the reactions of Poppy’s parents (rather snobby southerners) and her ex-girlfriend, Nikki (far more down to earth than Poppy herself), to Poppy’s change of lifestyle and geographical location.
Inspired by my theatre visit, I paid a visit to Park Hill recently. The redeveloped parts are very impressive, although the sections still awaiting renovation look much as I remember the place as a teenager. The convenient tram stop was a revelation to me – I don’t remember it being there before – and the views were impressive even from ground level. I was a little pushed for time; however, I plan to make a return visit at some point and explore more deeply, especially after finding such a wealth of information online while researching this piece. I can also recommend the photographs of Bill Stephenson and this short video for those who want to get more of a feel for Park Hill past and present.