Sylvia at The Old Vic

Sylvia is one of the new British Musical Theatre offerings to hit London this year. The show had a run in 2018 as a work in progress and this time it is back for its world premier. The show has book, lyrics, direction and choreography by Kate Prince along with Priya Parmer for the book and Josh Cohen and DJ Wade for the music.

The shows focus is on Sylvia Pankhurst, a daughter of the famous Emmeline Pankhurst. Sylvia was a pacifist and a socialist at the heart of the Suffragette movement who wanted to campaign for not only votes for wealthier women but votes for all women. The musical follows Sylvia from the death of her father through to all women finally being awarded the vote. The musical uses hip hop, funk and soul to tell this story and as a result the show is impactful and insightful, merging a powerful story with unrelenting energy.

The book itself is nuanced and doesn’t push feminism down the audiences throat but instead looks at feminism in it’s different guises. We watch as Emmeline and her daughter battle on the importance of working women getting the vote, the use of violence to achieve their aims as well as their thoughts on the war. Emmeline’s character takes some beating throughout the show, with some moments of the musical the audience letting out an audible groan at her actions, one such moment being when she declared standing for an MP on behalf of the Tory party. Despite that Hannah Khemoh who was on for Emmeline (normally played by Beverley Knight) ensured that all of her actions remained understandable, even if not entirely agreeable.

There are also numerous moments of comedy within the show, labour leader Keir Hardie played by Alex Gaumond opens one of his speeches to the Suffragettes but saying that he will try not to mansplain and there are many relatable moments between Clementine Churchill and Lady Jenny Churchill, Winston Churchill’s wife and mother respectively who put the man in their life in between their opposing views in a comical manner.

The book at times can feel a bit unwieldy for this production and we are unsure which characters to invest in, we turn from Sylvia’s relationship with her brother, to Keir Hardie, to her mother and sisters and finally to her partner. There are mentions about her sisters homosexuality and more and this does divert our attention away from the fascinating central themes of the show unnecessarily.

The music throughout the show is contemporary which helps drive the show forward. Much of the action in the show is told through the music and impressively through the dance also. The choreography compliments this hugely and in the finale of Act 1, Be The Change the choreography displays more eloquently then any words could what Sylvia and her fellow Suffragette’s went through. Alone the choreography or the music would be rousing but when combined it provides an exhilarating piece of theatre.

The cast throughout the show are exceptional. The show has a diverse cast and uses this to reclaim the white washed history of feminism in the UK. Sharon Rose plays the title role and manages to strike the balance between passion, intellect and a real empathy for the people brilliantly. There are also some stand out moments from supporting characters such as Kelly Agbowu as ‘The General’ who appears on stage with all metaphoric guns blazing and Jade Hackett as Lady Jennie Churchill who brings the house down with her number.

The set and costumes designed by Ben Stones is a sea of monochrome where gradually flashes of red are built up as the efforts become more and more violent. This images combined with Andrzej Gouldings video projections help the audience not only follow the swiftly moving story but also get immersed into the world where everything may not be as black and white as it first appears.

Whilst there is still some work to do on the book, Sylvia still resoundingly gets my vote.

Sylvia is on at The Old Vic until 8th April. You can find out more and book tickets here.

If you like this review you might also like my review of Six, Bonnie & Clyde and Hamilton.

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