Review: SYLVIA, The Old Vic

A show with much to say, but ends up muffled by its own content

By: Feb. 15, 2023
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SylviaSylvia did not receive a universally rapturous reception when it first came to The Old Vic back in 2018, despite being presented as a work in progress. Since then it has been trimmed in length, but despite some great performances, it feels sprawling and unfocused.

With many personal fallouts from Brexit, most of us have seen how politics can divide a family. In Sylvia, we see the increasing divide between the Pankhurst family: their initial united fight for women's suffrage becomes irreparably fractured as Christabel and Emmeline's increasingly conservative views and actions clash with Sylvia's innate socialism.

The subject of the show is potentially fascinating, with much comparison to draw to the current day; recent police brutality against women, challenges against the right to protest and the fight for equal pay all echo 100 years later. The show has so much to say, but ends up muffled.

Sharon Rose is an earnest and likeable Sylvia; strongly conveying Pankhurst's passionate socialist beliefs and striding the stage with great purpose. She also has a sparkling clarity to her voice.

Beverley Knight is reliably wonderful as Emmeline as a woman with incredible strength, showing a dispassionately icy core in her rejection of the working classes and then her own daughter. Knight could sing the phone book and make it sound like poetry, so it's a shame she isn't given a little more to do. When she does take the floor, the roof almost comes off.

Ellena Vincent and Kirstie Skivington shine in the roles of Pankhurst sisters Christabel and lesser-known Adela. Alex Gaummond is affable and focused as Keir Hardie.

Jay Perry is effete as Winston Churchill, presented as a pantomime villain, controlled by his wife and mother. Jade Hackett is his mother Jennie, very funny as a Jamaican matriarch who performs a garage number. Verity Blyth is sweet but with hidden depths as wife Clementine.

It's just a shame that, despite its name, the show isn't really about Sylvia Pankhurst; during the first forty minutes she is buried among the initial suffragist movement, achieving more attention with her suffragette and socialist activities later on, but then is swallowed up as the show races towards its end in 1928. It ignores her anti-colonialism and passionate anti-racism, particularly her fascinating work in Ethiopia.

Zoo Nation's Kate Prince is ostensibly a choreographer and director, but this show also features her lyrics and book, written with Priya Parmar. This is the crux of the show's weakness; it simply tries to fit too much in. It is odd that the show spends a few scant minutes on the time leading up to everyone receiving the vote in 1928, but languishes on Sylvia's relationship with Labour MP Keir Hardie and overlong lampooning of a hen-pecked Churchill. Although thoughtfully staged, it is also hard to shed a tear at the death of Sylvia's brother when he is an unknown character.

Prince's excellent choreography is easy to spot, with slick and sharp moves, the cast often moving with incredible fluidity across the stage.

The music, provided by a live band set at the back of the stage, features a smart mix of funk and hip hop, with a sprinkling of garage which occasionally drowns out the lyrics. Snippets of tracks such as KRS-One's "Sound of da Police" and Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It" grab audience attention and songs such as "March Women March" and the opening track of "First Steps To A Revolution" build energy and momentum. Some of the lyrics are less successful; rhyming dove and pug, for example, is not going to worry Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The purple and green of the suffragettes is ignored, leaning on a more monochrome palate which looks striking and clean. The red of socialism gradually bleeds into the look, from Kier Hardie's scarf to Sylvia's lipstick, demonstrating the increasing divide between Sylvia and the rest of her family, who remain in black and white. Andrzej Goulding's creative animations give context to the story, particularly the striking depiction of Emily Davison's death at the Epsom Derby, played out on a relatively stark set.

Sylvia is a production you want to love, but too much content and a lack of focus dampens the ardour.

Sylvia is at The Old Vic Theatre until 8 April

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan


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