Songs from the Seven Hills is heart-warming community theatre at its best

Songs from the Seven Hills. Photo by Mark Douet.
Songs from the Seven Hills. Photo by Mark Douet.

A lively and thoughtful musical by Sheffield People’s Theatre takes the city itself as its subject, drawing on the histories of some of the company and on stories told by refugees in search of a new life, writes Alan Payne.

The many strands in Songs from the Seven Hills are cleverly brought together in the script by John Hollingworth, and given an almost lush emotional colouring by the music and lyrics of Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie.

It starts in a camp in Calais, and we follow a family from Syria as they risk all in their attempts to get to England. Our guide is Gerald Shaw, who worked in the steel industry and has recently died – the voice of an older Sheffield. It’s as if, in death, he has joined the dispossessed. He haunts the show and acts as a link between the different groups. A refrain which runs through the play is:‘I can see you, but can you see me?’ It points to how those without power, or who have personal difficulties, are often treated as if they’re invisible.

A single child travelling with the Syrian family is separated from the group – falling out of sight but not out of mind. Gerald’s wife is still mourning her loss and may have the beginnings of dementia – she insists she has seen Gerald since he has died. (The joke being that she has – as her husband is on stage.) Their daughter has many unresolved feelings, and is trying to keep a community centre going – under stress.

A local vicar leaves her abusive husband, who happens to be the deputy mayor – and involved in a shady business deal.

A young man, Georgie Porter, faces family opposition when he wishes to have gender realignment: she wishes, she says, to feel at home in her body.

Private and public events intersect. Everyone is struggling, but northern stoicism and humour are never far away.

Gradually, the asylum seekers find that they are welcomed. Kaye, Gerald’s wife, moves house and is willing to share her new home with these outsiders.

A sense of loss and dislocation gives way to hope and renewal. It’s as if the city is healing itself.

The cast of almost 60, directed by Emily Hutchinson, do themselves proud in their commitment and enthusiasm.

Tommi Bryson as Georgie Porter, Jane Norburn as Linda Loxley the vicar, and Liz Seneviratne as Kaye, stand out, each offering a portrait of a troubled but strong female personality. Many others have their moments, including Jayna Cocker-Buchanan as Sima, the single child who goes astray.

Songs from the Seven Hills is an example of community theatre at its best, inclusive and heart-warming. It’s on at the Crucible until Saturday, July 21.