Sylvia, the newest musical to propel itself onto the Old Vic stage!
Sylvia revisits the fight for women’s suffrage in the UK from over 100 years ago. Rather than focusing on Emmeline – the dominant figure and leader of the Suffragettes – Sylvia instead unveils the story of Sylvia Pankhurst, a daring revolutionary and activist in her own right. Kate Prince’s use of funk, soul and hip-hop to modernise a historical retelling seemingly gets key inspiration from Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, and it is as polished and slickly choreographed as one would expect from a show that has been developed since 2018.
The standout aspect of the musical is, befittingly, the music, with references in dialogue to various musicians (Aretha Franklin, Ludacris, and Montell Jordan, to name a few) paying homage to the inspiration behind the original compositions of Josh Cohen and DJ Walde. The work was bolstered by the use of the live band aloft on stage, revealed at some points and half-hidden behind netting in others. The quality of musical performance also extends to the actors, with the mother-daughter duo (Beverley Knight as Emmeline and Sharon Rose as Sylvia) dazzling on the stage, particularly when Rose takes centre stage in the latter half and breaks away from her mother’s shadow. The quality of the performance doesn’t stop with just singing, with the level of rapping (particularly by Kelly Agbowu) also being a delightful addition to the range of the piece.
The visuals were aptly impressive, particularly with the use of video projections (Andrzej Goulding), utilised to position both time, and place, and also as a work of art in their own right. One notable example would be with the introduction of Winston Churchill’s overbearing mother, jumping onto the stage with a thumping jungle beat complete with a rotating kaleidoscopic background. The monochrome colour scheme also subtly included suffragette colours in a manner that felt natural. The video worked in tandem with the lighting (Natasha Chivers), used particularly well during the musical number ‘Hey Sis’, spotlighting each of the issues in Sylvia’s tumultuous life.
I was also very drawn to the use of costuming (Ben Stones), using a very clever base of white shirts and long
black skirts (or trousers) to build upon with suit jackets, long coats, or aprons, easily modified with quick changes off and on-stage. The red splashes of socialism were also an interesting choice, lighting up the stage in the second half, breaking away from the uniformity of Emmeline’s strict control.
While there is much to be commended for the modernising of the play, there were some key flaws that perhaps remain intrinsic to the nature of creating a biopic about a section from a person’s long and turbulent life. The relationship between Sylvia and Labour Leader Keir Hardie (no, not that Keir), was presented in a manner that made me feel, at points, deeply uncomfortable. The opening number to establish their relationship, ‘Did You See Me’ begins with Sylvia declaring her love for him that began when she was 7 and he was … 26. Alex Gaumond does what he can with the role, but ultimately it’s just far too difficult to support it. Their affair trudges through much of the play, and while we are supposed to root for them (or at least, be frustrated that they cannot be together), I will admit that I was relieved by its eventual conclusion.
This relationship also detracts from the romance Sylvia forms with fellow socialist Sylvio Corio (Sweeney), which was barely given time during a muddled second half that loses the tight pacing structure of the first. Other aspects of characterisation lost my favour, particularly the role of Winston Churchill (Jay Perry), who is at times the chief antagonist, and at others, a simpering mummy’s boy. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of his character was the introduction of his mother (Jade Hackett), a scene-stealing delight. Churchill’s recalcitrance fell short in comparison to the layered and enticingly complex nature of Emmeline’s anti-socialist, anti-pacifist, and eventually, conservative, stance.
Sylvia is a play about conflict within family, ideology, and one’s own self. It is also a musical that seems to find conflict within itself, daring and thrilling in some parts, and yet working against itself in others. In the areas it succeeds in, it does brilliantly. It is hard to watch without some comparison to the current state of politics, with the ideological divisions and the phrase ‘this is an illegal protest’ sending a chill down my spine at how little (and yet how far) we have come. Ultimately, Kate Prince has taken the funky historical-fiction fervour and moulded it into a work that spotlights a revolutionary who was not concerned with equal rights for some, but for all.