Spool forward five years, and the finished Sylvia proves well worth the wait. With book by the proven hit maker Kate Prince, founder and director of the hip-hop sensation ZooNation, and Priya Parmar, and pulsating music by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde, Sylvia gives renewed vibrancy to the historic struggle for women’s suffrage.
Sylvia Pankhurst, the middle daughter of the better-known suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, played by Beverley Knight in stupendous voice, was a complex character: artist, uncompromising campaigner, feminist, socialist, a born rebel. And it is to Sylvia’s credit, and Sharon Rose’s sparkling interpretation, that all those facets come across loud and clear.
With Lolita Chakrabarti’s impeccable dramaturgy and fluent, conversational lyrics not averse to the odd anachronism ensuring that the story is clearly told, Sylvia runs from 1903, when women organised to campaign for votes, through 1918, when some women were given the right to vote, to 1928 when universal suffrage finally became law.
The work’s palette (sets and costumes by Ben Stones) starts off mostly monochrome, the set in shades of grey surmounted by a large banner where dates are projected, while the five-person band plays on a raised platform at the back. Natasha Chivers's lighting is atmospheric with flashes of blue and white underlining key moments.
Hip-hop started life as the street dance of dispossessed urban youth, and so its language – energetic, jerky, challenging, provocative – perfectly suits a musical about a fight where all the odds were for so long stacked against the defiant campaigners.
The Company in Sylvia at the Old Vic 2023. Photo: © Manuel Harlan
The whole ensemble shows the skill and commitment of all Prince’s performers in the two decades since her company has been creating hit after hit.
A secondary character always shines through, in this case the irrepressible Jade Hackett’s show-stealing turn as Winston Churchill’s daunting, reactionary mama.
Verity Blyth, Jade Hackett and Jay Perry in Sylvia at The Old Vic 2023. Photo: © Manuel Harlan
Most of the men featured in Sylvia are negative characters, from the pompous Winston Churchill (Jay Perry), vehemently opposed to votes for women, and a firm believer in the notion that, as a chorus loudly chants ‘men are better put together than women’, to Prime Minister Lloyd George (Stevie Hutchinson), the wheeler-dealer politician par excellence, and the well-meaning but ineffectual Labour leader Keir Hardie (Alex Gaumont), with whom Sylvia had a four-year affair.
Presented more positively, though still a slightly silly young man prone to break into falsetto singing, is the Italian journalist Silvio Corio (Sweeney), whom Sylvia meets when she settles in the East End to fight for the rights of poor women there, and who became Sylvia’s lover and the father of her son.
Sweeney as Silvio Corio and Sharon Rose as Sylvia Pankhurst in Sylvia at The Old Vic. Photo: © Manuel Harlan
The women are a joy, even someone as ambiguous as Emmeline Pankhurst, by all accounts not the most affectionate of mothers, whose concern for women didn’t stretch much beyond the middle classes.
Sylvia’s greatest merit is that it doesn’t sacrifice political complexity to entertainment. With its high production values, it's a deeply joyful show which keeps you thinking long after its triumphant finale.
|What||Sylvia, Old Vic Theatre review|
|Where||The Old Vic, The Cut, London, SE1 8NB | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
27 Jan 23 – 01 Apr 23, 7:30 PM – 9:00 PM
|Price||£10 - £67.50|
|Website||Click here to book|