”Sylvia” starring Beverley Knight and Sharon Rose at the Old Vic – review

Beverley Knight and Sharon Rose in Sylvia
Beverley Knight and Sharon Rose in Sylvia
© Manuel Harlan
Whilst it may be Emmeline that remains the headline grabber of the Pankhurst family – the spearhead of the Women’s Suffragette movement – it is undoubtedly her middle daughter, Sylvia, that is the more interesting character, and who undoubtedly had as much influence as her mother on today’s society and how people are treated.

In the programme notes, writer, director and choreographer Kate Prince admits to not having heard of the old adage that “musicals aren’t written, they are re-written” until she started working with the Old Vic’s Matthew Warchus in 2018. Several incarnations and multiple re-writes later, it is something she says she now understands. The Old Vic has nurtured and supported this new piece of dynamic British writing commendably. First commissioned as a work of dance, it morphed into a musical which was given a healthy work-in-progress run at the venue before the pandemic hit us. Now it is a fully realised musical and there is plenty to enjoy.

With a Funk and Hip Hop score that mainly thunders along at a rattling pace, there are unavoidable comparisons to the other Hip Hop behemoth up the road at the Victoria Palace. Whilst Hamilton is laser-focused on its storytelling, there is less clarity in the telling of Sylvia’s story. Whilst she is intrinsically linked to her mother, the Suffragettes and later to the Socialist cause, it does rather feel as though there are too many strands to the story vying for attention.

Sylvia broke away from her mother and sister’s increasingly violent and militant action for women’s suffrage. Emmeline grew increasingly right-wing of thinking and later joined the Conservative party – cue boos from the audience. Sylvia was determined to fight for the lower classes in the East End of London and she joined forces with Labour politician and family friend Kier Hardie. Despite being some 26 years her senior, he would later become her lover – an uncomfortable love song explains how she first saw him at the age of seven and wonders if he’d noticed her.

Beverley Knight is a fierce matriarchal Emmeline Pankhurst, hard and uncaring she has no room for anything other than ‘the cause’. It is a bold and brave performance from Knight who happily sits in the gloom of villainy to provide the light into which Sharon Rose’s tremendous Sylvia can shine. Between them, these two women provide powerhouse performances – their act two duet is sensational – with soulful and commanding voices that give flight to the thumping music of Josh Cohen and DJ Walde.

Prince’s book and lyrics, with Priya Parmar, are often clunky and the entire show loses momentum in its second act as it gets lost in the quagmire of socialism and war. Rose never falters however, and portrays a determined yet tormented Sylvia, fiercely committed to her cause and bereft having been brutally disowned by her own mother in order to protect the Pankhurst brand.

Alex Gaumond is a suitably likeable Kier Hardie and Ellena Vincent is a tough Christabel Pankhurst, with whom Prince gives brief credence to the suggestion that many of the suffragettes were gay. Jay Perry is an absurdly two-dimensional mummy’s boy as Winston Churchill whilst Jade Hackett is equally as absurd but hysterically funny as his mother – Lady Jennie Churchill goes all Garage on us.

The company of Sylvia
The company of Sylvia
© Manuel Harlan

Ben Stones’ set design is effective with Andrzej Goulding’s whizzy projections covering every inch of it. The monochrome designs are streaked with red to mark the arrival of socialism – obvious perhaps, but effective all the same. Bravo too, to Natasha Chivers’ subtle suffragette lighting design.

As a 21st century musical, it may lack the intellect of Hamilton or the brevity of Six, but it is still tremendous fun. It celebrates the empowerment of women and the breaking down of barriers and is not afraid to question our preconceptions of the accepted history. It’s a brave and vibrant hit at the Old Vic.

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Closed: 08 April 2023