"Sylvia is educational as well as entertaining"

It would be true to say that when we heard we were going to see a show based on the story of Sylvia Pankhurst, part of the Suffragette Movement in the early part of the 20th Century, set to the Hip Hop music we were, let’s say, sceptical!  Votes for women set to the rhythms of hip hop, funk and soul shouldn’t work – but amazingly the combination adds to the telling of the story!

Sylvia, written by Kate Prince and Priya Palmer, with music by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde has essences of the rhythms of Hamilton with the woman-power of Six.

Production photographs and advertising promote Beverley Knight and Sharon Rose as show leads, playing mother and daughter Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst.  In reality this is truly an ensemble number, filled with strong women performers and very supportive male cast.  So many of the cast deserve a mention including Ellena Vincent (Christabel Pankhurst) Kristie Skivington (Adela Pankhurst) and Jade Hackett (as Lady Jennie Churchill).  As does Jay Perry who plays Winston Churchill.  Which leads us nicely to name the blind casting:  Most of the historically white characters are played by black actors. If we had been sceptical about this before we saw the show we can truly say the colour of the actor did not matter, their skills carried the day.  You are told this is Winston Churchill – and it is!

The whole ensemble should be praised for its strength both in vocals and movements, supported by a well balanced 5-piece band. Speaking of balance, the writing has a great balance of light and shade.  The women are by far the strongest characters but comic moments are offered by many of the male characters and caricatures – we are often laughing at their absurd views, rather than with them.  There are some really amusing references to modern day hip hop. Throughout, the women are the stronger part even whilst facing up to their own failings.

The show is played on a simple yet effective building block black and white set. The videography adds a great deal to the production, providing splashes of socialist-red as Sylvia seeks to paint her story of trying to change the world.  An exceptional number worth mentioning is 'Be The Change You Want To See' – a powerful and most moving end to Act 1.

The musical is dealing with some very disturbing parts of British history, mostly regarding the unequal treatment of women in the early 20th century.  But the musical goes further, portraying the complexities of society, even hundreds of years ago, including competing family dynamics, same-sex relationships, relationships outside marriage, and competing ideologies: votes for women versus votes for all.  It works and it could be a story about today! 

Sylvia is educational as well as entertaining and a good night out at the theatre.  Catch it if you can.

This production was reviewed on the 1st March 2023.  Sylvia is playing at the The Old Vic, London until the 8th April 2023.  Tickets available at Sylvia | Old Vic Theatre

Review written by Paul Wood & Ian Worsey


Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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