I was present at the read-through of ‘Songs From The Seven Hills’, the 2018 offering of the superb Sheffield People's Theatre, instinctively knew that it was going to be incredibly special, and so it was. A production that came from the hearts of the city’s residents, invited to tell their stories, to put into words what it meant to be living in that urban environment. Some had known no other place, some had gone away and then returned, some had found welcome as refugees and others had moved there for work. There were stories of the steel industry and the blitz, of the fancy new furniture stores, and of the buildings most intrinsic to supporting the city’s poorest residents being closed down by bureaucracy. Tales to uplift and tales that splintered the soul. In an act of pure alchemy, John Hollingworth, Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie, transformed these narratives, blending and shaping them into a cohesive whole that celebrated with gusto the city of Sheffield and everyone who finds place and affirmation there.
Emily Hutchinson is a master of directing community casts, guiding each individual, no matter how unused to stage performance, with a caring and enabling approach that allows them to discover for themselves their own gifted potentials along with the depth of their characters. Darragh O’Leary, as Movement Director, complements her with his humour and equally empowering words that encourage the company to push the boundaries of what they thought their bodies were capable of. Matthew Malone, the Musical Director, completes the talented trio that confidently moulds the ensemble of Sheffield People’s Theatre into something beautiful. The Crucible stage is an impressive space for any company to negotiate, and more so a large ensemble that weaves in and out, dances, sings and does high kicks in close proximity to each other and a variety of props, but with their combined adroit direction, it looks elegant and ordered throughout the whole production.
Kevin Jenkins’ stage sets are always mesmerising and delightful feats of engineering, and this for ‘Songs From The Seven Hills’ is no different. Staging platforms that convert into trains, shop displays, community hall settings, a church and two front rooms at the flick of a lever; bunting that appears from nowhere for the summer fete; a breath-taking cascade of butterflies and the frightening cages of a refugee holding camp. With two important exceptions, Jenkins’ makes the costumes almost disappear in relation to the settings as, in this piece, it isn’t what the characters are wearing that gives the audience clues to the chaos inside them. Gerald, as Narrator and guardian of all that is occurring, stands outside the action and has his own understated, but distinct, identity. The managers of the modern Nordic furniture shop with their glistening smiley promises of flat pack dreams are incongruously oblivious to the turmoils within those they employ and the neighbourhood in which they stand, their sunshine yellow livery screaming discord with the muter colours of others. Binding the elements together is the stunning lighting devised by Gary Longfield, taking us from ominous lunar eclipse on one side of the world to dazzling solar eclipse on the other side, heralding new beginnings, via every atmospheric emotion in-between.
But it is the dialogue of the stories that has us weeping with the pain of the city’s people and laughing at the absurdities that so often travel alongside grief and loss.
A community worker, Bec, doing her selfless best to keep a youth project started by her dad, Gerald, going, despite the council’s attempts to close the building. She fights back and finds personal happiness on the way to resolution.
A refugee family, headed up by Koshi and Rabka, that faces the crushing realities and fears of being returned to war torn Aleppo and being separated from a child in the cruel and dangerous journey they have just undertaken to reach a city where a relative was once happy. It would have been so easy for Hollingworth to circle the events of their narrative and give them a long term happy ending, but to do so wouldn’t be authentic to those who made themselves vulnerable in relating their own stories or the many hundreds of others who seek safety on our shores, and our hearts are in our mouths hoping and praying that they will be allowed to stay. In the meantime, they find a home where they are welcomed and enfolded into family and we join in bittersweet rejoicing at the kindness they have been shown along the way.
A widow, Kaye, slowly adjusting to her new status, tentatively taking those steps through the grief process that all who have lost know only too well, and dealing with family who mean well, but are incapable of understanding the route she must take. Her late husband, Gerald, is still very present to her in the beginning, but as life takes on a new purpose and focus, she allows herself to let him go.
A mousy, timid vicar, Linda, trapped between an abusive marriage and her fear of leaving because of her status in the church. Linda asks searching theological questions. How can she minister to those seeking marriage when her own marriage has not been a success? Leaving will mean losing the vicarage and her shame will be laid bare for all to see. Will the church still support her or will it reject her? Questions she negotiates with admiral faith and reflection, whilst still being there as God’s representative for those who seek her help. We’re on the edge of our seats willing her to leave her arrogant and pompous husband and when the Bishop blesses her decision, we see sense has prevailed.
A manager of the brand new SKANDEA, Barry, who along with colleagues Gary and Marta, is excited to see what new opportunities will open up in the city as the store revitalises employment prospects, but struggles with his own issues and concerns. The SKANDEA store provides a number of the more upbeat moments in the show and Marta is just brilliant in selling the Swedish lifestyle complete with korv ladies carrying trays of complimentary Swedish hot dogs.
A teenager, Georgie, assigned a male at birth, but who knows she is not comfortable in her own skin. Georgie’s search for identity and re-assignment as a female, told by the authentic owner of the story, is so eloquently presented and so beautifully owned that it is powerful in the extreme. At one point, I have to hold on to the edges of my seat to stop myself charging down the aisle and wrapping this beautiful lady in my arms. As her family comes to acceptance of her decision, I don’t think there is one audience member who is not in tears.
Six main stories, but holding references to a legion more, told by a cast that are so bound in unity and common aim that it would be utterly wrong to mark one out from another. That is the essence of ensemble, and they are all truly wonderful.
Hills struggled up, panting at the top and then the sheer exhilaration of running or rolling down the other side, swiftly followed by the slow, aching traverse up the next one as life goes on in its continuing ebbs and flows, highs and lows; seasons of chaos and seasons of peace. There are moments that sear the heart with their cruelty and pain, those that cause tears to fall at the tenderness, the hurts, the rejections, the rejoicings, the waitings, the decisions to be made and the letting go to be done, and there are the times of fun and laughter, melancholic ballads and uplifting songs that catch us up in their bright, cheery tunes. Throughout it all, a city sheltering between seven hills that takes into its midst the broken souls of our weary world, cradles, nurtures and heals them with the compassion and welcome of its people.
Tender, sensitive and oh, so beautifully executed. My congratulations to everyone involved.