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Review - Sylvia

Updated: Feb 16, 2023

Old Vic

Playing until 8th April 2023

Writers

Kate Prince and Priya Parmer

Music

Josh Cohen and DJ Walde

Lyrics

Kate Prince

Director and Choreography

Kate Prince


Synopsis

Sylvia follows the story of the Pankhurst family, notably Emmeline Pankhurst, who founded the suffragette movement, and her second daughter Sylvia, who initially fought alongside her mother and later broke away to become an East London Socialist and fought for the rights of all working-class people.


Review

The women’s suffrage movement is viewed from Sylvia (Sharon Rose) ’s point of view, from initially admiring her mother’s convictions and a want to prove herself to her mother, Sylvia later came to realise and accept the inconsolable differences between her own beliefs and her family’s actions. The heated and passionate confrontations between Emmeline (Beverley Knight) and Sylvia Pankhurst are some of the highlights of the entire show.


In this story, Emmeline is portrayed as a manipulative individual, using any means necessary to achieve her agenda, including exploiting the death of Emily Davison (Kimmy Edwards) to create political impact. While the musical is primarily focused on the Pankhurst family, their interaction with the political leaders at the time cannot be overlooked. The story is meticulously crafted to tell how Winston Churchill (Jay Perry) shaped the historical events and how Keir Hardie (Alex Gaumond) inspired Sylvia’s actions. Despite the fact that many look upon Churchill fondly through his war efforts, his fervent opposition to women’s right to vote, though comically in this production, is one of the main drivers of the plot. However, there are obvious weaknesses in the telling of Sylvia. Act I is noticeably slower and does not paint a clear picture of Sylvia’s narratives. Thankfully, this is significantly improved in Act II. Given the ample material on a divided family and movement, it is unclear why the writers decided to include elements that arguably add little in terms of explanations or emotional value. In this version, Christabel Pankhurst (Ellena Vincent) is inferred as a homosexual, but this is neither part of the overall story nor expanded upon. The audience is also introduced to Silvio (Sweeney), Silvia’s long-term partner, and dedicated a whole musical number to this. While it is appreciated that this serves as a platform to explain Sylvia’s child and lead up to her attempted reconciliation with Emmeline, this could also be achieved through the use of a short narrative projection, which is already used in abundance. Instead, I would like to see how Sylvia motivates the working women in the East End to continue to fight for their rights toward the end of the show. It was rather hard to swallow the fact that these women were quickly re-energised and motivated by a few brief words immedately after a crushing defeat, thus making this entire section of Act II rushed.


With Kate Prince serving as the writer, lyricist, director and choreographer, there is a strong and persistent hip hop presence throughout. The minimalistic stage design complements the choreography and provides ample room for energetic and powerful movements with minimal disruption to the set. Though not particularly an innovative concept, lighting and projections are cleverly used here to achieve two things: to demonstrate when key historical events took place and the passage of time; and Sylvia’s passion for arts and over time, its incompatibility with her activist work.


While not advocating that all musical numbers should roll off the tongue, but it is definitely one of the factors that can help make a production more memorable. However, perhaps hip hop is not my preferred musical genre, I struggle to think of a single number that I find particularly unforgettable. Rose showcased her unique Sylvia, is vocally impressive and clearly portrays the transition of Sylvia from a timid young woman to a strong independent individual. Soul legend, Beverley Knight, is always a treat for any audience, demonstrating her ability to entice the audience with her vocals and burst into belts where necessary. However, the balance of background music and the accompanying chorus did not do Knight any justice in Act I. There, Knight’s voice felt drowned out and would benefit from a slight dial back of the accompaniment to showcase Knight’s potential.


Sylvia reminds us the effort and sacrifice needed to obtain rights many take for granted today. It is delivered by a strong and experienced cast, backed up with fantastic staging, lighting and choreography. However, it suffers from pacing issues, with the main Sylvia narrative not becoming prominent until Act II and would benefit from a re-focus on the Pankhurst family narrative without distractions from romance and other pertinent modern-day topics.

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