Sylvia has taken a fair while to get to the stage – originally performed as a work-in-progress back in 2018, the full production has finally opened earlier this month at The Old Vic theatre. Directed by Kate Prince, the show has already drawn numerous comparisons to hit musical Hamilton, and it’s not hard to see why – this historical piece, covering the early 20th century Suffragette movement, is set to a soundtrack heavily inspired by old-school hip hop and rap music.
The show focuses on the lives of the titular Sylvia Pankhurst (Sharon Rose) and her mother Emmeline (Beverley Knight). There’s a lot to take in during this musical: while the main narrative is driven by these two women, it unfolds against a backdrop of the formation and rise of the Labour Party – which was, at the time, a new socialist movement in British politics – and also the events of the First World War. We also see a range of other key moments as part of the fight for securing votes for women, from Emily Davison’s protest at the Epsom Derby to hunger strikes and force feeding in prisons.
At times it feels as though this production bites off more than it can chew – there’s a lot going on and it starts to feel a little sluggish in places. Thankfully, some excellent songs and powerhouse performances more than make up for occasional pacing issues. Beverley Knight is, of course, a wonderful musical theatre performer; an outstanding singer who plays her role brilliantly, critiquing Emmeline Pankhurst’s privilege as she seeks to secure votes for some (wealthy, married) women, and leaving others to pick up the fight to secure rights for the working classes. Sharon Rose as Sylvia Pankhurst also shines – when the two duet in the second act it’s an absolute standout moment.
Our leading ladies are ably supported by a talented ensemble cast who power their way through some demanding choreography, bringing energy levels back up whenever there’s a temporary lull in proceedings. The songs are a little hit-and-miss but most are strong and some are completely unexpected – and all the better for it. We don’t want to give away any spoilers, but the moment we were first introduced to Winston Churchill’s mother was truly inspired.
We enjoyed our evening with Sylvia – it may have a few pacing issues here and there and one or two of the songs fall a bit flat, but there are some genuinely superb performances on display here and some wonderful set pieces in this powerful new musical. It also makes for genuinely interesting viewing – the story of Emmeline Pankhurst may be reasonably well known but this shines a spotlight on the important work of her daughter. We’re not convinced it’s the next Hamilton, but it certainly makes for entertaining and informative viewing.
GAY TIMES gives Sylvia – 4/5
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