Shropshire Star

Richard Hawley: A love letter to singer’s home

The scale of his achievement should not be understated.

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Richard Hawley, erstwhile guitarist in Pulp and Longpigs; tender balladeer and collaborator with Lisa Maria Presley, Paul Weller, Arctic Monkeys, and Elbow; working class hero and Laureate for the City of Sheffield, has changed the game.

He may not be the first rock star to write a musical – that honour probably goes to Queen and the guys from Abba – but he is the first to write one that’s relateable, that speaks truth to power, that focuses on universal truths, and that takes its audience on an unforgettable roller-coaster of high emotion.

Hawley’s Standing At The Sky’s Edge, is a work of no little genius.

Jarvis Cocker (left) and guest Richard Hawley of Pulp perform at the Teenage Cancer Trust gig at the Royal Albert Hall, London in 2012

A multi-award-winning production that won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical, UK Theatre Award for Best Musical Production, and the South Bank Sky Arts Award, is presently in the West End, following sold-out runs at the National Theatre and Sheffield Theatres.​

Hailed as ‘the most exciting new British musical in years’ (WhatsOnStage), Standing at the Sky’s Edge was originally written as a love letter to Sheffield, charting the hopes and dreams of three generations over the course of six tumultuous decades, navigating universal themes of love, loss and survival.

Richard Hawley

Directed by Sheffield Theatres’ Artistic Director Robert Hastie, with irresistible songs by Hawley and a beautiful, hilarious and gut-wrenching book by Chris Bush, Standing at the Sky’s Edge reveals the history of modern Britain through the stories of the landmark housing estate – a heartfelt exploration of the power of community and what it is we all call home.

He’s typically deferential when asked to reflect. Not for him any self-glorification or getting ahead of himself. Like other, great British singer-songwriters – Paul Weller, for starters – he has no truck with that. And so he deflects the hard-earned praise onto others.

“For a start, I get given far too much credit for it,” he says, though, of course, he doesn’t. The praise is both well earned and unanimous. “I had a lot of the gags,” he continues. “They were things that I’d overheard over years and years in pubs and in clubs. I often write down things that people say. The funny stories are legion. They often get told after a few pints in the pub to make people laugh. A few of those have ended up in the play.

“The main contribution I’ve made is not contributing too much and allowing people to plunder my back catalogue. I’ve been involved for 12 years, I was the first person approached by Rupert Lord, the producer. Sometimes, the best thing a producer can do is press play and record and let it happen, sometimes you need to guide and help things along. Chris’s writing was so amazing and Rob the director was incredible. We had a common goal. I laid down certain laws that this wasn’t going to be a finger-wagging, soap-box opera thing. I didn’t want a personal agenda or personal politics to shape it. I wanted the story to tell itself. My parents lived through the first section of it and I lived through a lot of it. But I didn’t want it to be an exercise in telling people off. I wanted the story to tell itself. It’s to let the story breathe and allow the cast to bring a lot.

“It’s my first experience of being a big part of a production in a theatre. I think the fact that I was a bit of a theatre virgin and wholey naïve was a plus. I’d sit there like a numpty and say: ‘What about this, or what about that?’ That wasn’t the form but it was a plus. I just stood in awe watching phenomenal talent. I was watching over it all the time making sure there was no soap box or jazz hands. None of that. I hate musicals, you know, but I like this.”

Standing At The Sky’s Edge is the best thing to hit the West End in eons. Unmissable and exhilarating, big-hearted and full of soul, it is both deeply moving and unlike anything else in the West End. And Hawley is right, of course, that it’s greater than the sum of its parts. He’s not the only one involved, and the creative team, musicians, crew, and performers create a rare kind of synergy. It’s rooted in reality – rather than unicorns, fairy princesses, or stories from a different century.

Hawley says: “I think it forces people to think about our humanity. As a race, but as a country, we’ve been bludgeoned by the media of all shapes, hues, and sizes about what we should and shouldn’t think. We have turned into a flock of sheep. Whether that’s social media or the agenda or right or left whatever, largely right, it has to be said, it’s true. We’ve been pushed and pulled all over the place for what we should think. It’s jarred our natural humanity into quite a warped place and that’s not a healthy thing.” The musical charts our social history over recent decades and there are moments that Hawley finds just too raw.

“I have to leave at some points, like when they sing Our Darkness. There’s certain scenes that I can’t watch. When Frank dies, I have to leave. I have to go. It’s so close to the bone, with my own mum and dad. Chris wrote that without knowing. When Rose sings Our Darkness and they’re handing the flowers out to the miners, my mom was one of those women. She did that twice, she did it with the miners and with my dad.”

Ah yes, Richard’s mum.She’s seen it. She lives in a pit village and refuses to move out from the outskirts of Sheffield. Her reaction, more than that of anyone else, was what mattered to Hawley. “I was bricking it when she went to see it. I was thinking if she’s indifferent, I might as well just pack it in. But she wept all the way home on the train. She sent a message saying ‘I can’t speak. Thank everybody for telling our story’.” And isn’t that the best type of recommendation that a creative could ever have?

Hawley, the man who wrote for Shirley Bassey, made his own mum cry with the beauty and tenderness of his work. There’s more to talk about, of course, but one final point before we move on. It’s this. Hawley’s renditions of his songs are underpinned by great melody. In Standing At The Sky’s Edge, where songs are re-arranged, the lyrics come to the fore. They’re heard, as though for the first time, and there’s remarkable poetry in them. Placed in a different frame, Hawley’s intent and wordsmanship is given new flight – and that’s also a thing of beauty.

“This will probably be my first and last foray into the world of theatre. I’m glad we’ve done it. It’s been a bit of a bomb. We’ve gatecrashed theatre land. We don’t belong there and I certainly don’t. it’s good to shake it up a bit. A lot of the theatre people have said to me that the thing itself has shaken things up where the possibilities of what musical can be.

“The horizon is on the horizon. A lot of us are denied a horizon. Our horizons have been lowered so hugely in this country. As people, we’ve got so much to give. But we are lions led by donkeys. That’s where we are. As long as you can wake up and see – that’s all that matters.”

We’re not supposed to be talking about that today. Hawley has a new record, the perfectly formed In This City They Call You Love, which is redolent of such former masterworks as Cole’s Corner, Truelove’s Gutter, and Standing at the Sky’s Edge were the same. “It’s like having a musical satnav. It’s never 100% clear. I wanted the whole thing to be focused on the voice and the voices. The other guys in the band can sing really well. I wanted to focus on that and not worry about filling the tracks with too much excessive baggage. I wanted to keep the songs stripped back, even the bigger-sounding tracks.”

It’s exquisite, and is underpinned by a superlative band. That includes Dino, his drummer, the band’s Birmingham boy. “He’s only been with us for 18 years, he’s the new boy,” Hawley laughs. “When he joined the band, he had such a fantastic feel, an old-school feel. He doesn’t play like a modern groove. He can hit them, but it’s years and years of playing rock’n’roll and soul and r’n’b and a lot more besides that can make you play that way.”

The guys in the band – the ones who never get the credit – are the people Hawley talks about. Like Johnny, his keyboard player, whose background is jazz and who has a masters degree in music. “His musicality is phenomenal. He knows the art of playing, just enough. None of us have got egos, we want to play what the song requires.

“It’s the song rather than me at the front. Colin, our bass player, he comes from a completely different background, which was classical. He got into soul and r’n’b and jazz again.” And then there’s Mr Shez Sheridan, Hawley’s supremely underrated guitarist and lynchpin, who’s been there since 1999.

“It’s a funny old unit. I love working with them. We don’t have any issues on the road. we just have such a laugh. There’s never any grimness. If one of us is having trouble, the other four are aware and pull together. Me, Paul, and Shez have been together since 1999.”

When Hawley writes, he eschews process. Sometimes he’ll sit strumming his guitar and a song will fly to him. Other times, he walks the dog or chops wood. “If you’re doing something with a rhythm, like putting one foot in front of another, like walking the dogs, that’s when things happen. At some point in that journey to and from where I’m going, something comes to me. But describing inspiration is like trying to describe how to fall asleep, from being conscious to subconscious. No one can describe that. It’s where your brain slips from logical, rational, cohesive thought, into this abstract thought process. I still don’t know how it works. You never question it. Don’t look the genie in the eye.”

Sheffield remains his home, and his neighbour is the equally talented Martin Simpson, one of Britain’s greatest ever folk musicians. “He’s like an old whisky, like a Talisker. The older he gets, the better he gets. He’s not diminished by time. It adds to what he is.”

Hawley will be out on the road to celebrate In This City They Call You Love. He’ll play Wolverhampton’s Wulfurn on June 11. And when he goes back to his native Sheffield, in August, it will be to play the colossal Don Valley Bowl.

“Sheffield is just home. It’s what I know. I don’t know what it’s like to live in Wolverhampton or Iran or Bangladesh or Kentucky or Uganda or India or Turkmenistan. I’ve been to a lot of those places but Sheffield is home. I know what it’s like to live in this city. It’s just home. Ruskin described Sheffield as an ugly picture in a beautiful frame. I guess it’s that.

“It is. And it’s the city, where they call you love.”

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