One of the best things about the world of theatre is seeing a show take its first few steps, fall over, and get back on its feet to try again.  Such is the case with ‘Sylvia’, a new musical which shows the same refusal to give in as its eponymous heroine in her fight for women’s equality.  After an initial “work in progress” production in 2018 which was plagued by a number of unfortunate production obstacles, the true story of the pioneering Pankhurst women who led the Suffragette movement is back on its feet at London’s Old Vic theatre.


Spanning the first 30 years of the twentieth century, ‘Sylvia’ takes us on the Pankhurst family’s journey as they fought political oppression and patriarchal misogyny in their quest for equal rights for women and allowing them to vote.  Spearheaded by mother Emmeline (Beverley Knight), the mission sees daughters Sylvia (Sharon Rose), Christabel (Ellena Vincent) and Adela (Kirstie Skivington) on the frontline of protests as they try to make their voices heard, eventually gaining the support of Keir Hardie (Alex Gaumond), the founder and first leader of the Labour Party and forming the WSPU (Women’s Social & Political Union).  As the years pass, progress is slow to take hold, and Emmeline and Sylvia begin to clash over their favoured approaches to victory, leading to Sylvia’s expulsion from the WSPU and forging her own path.


Early feedback from ‘Sylvia’s initial tryout was mixed, with some feeling the show was under-developed and unevenly told, and it’s clear from the outset that this time round, ‘Sylvia’ isn’t pulling any punches.  It makes a strong impression from a gutsy boombastic opening that sets a propulsive tone which continues to drive the show.  Within the first few minutes, inevitable comparisons with ‘Hamilton’ begin to surface, and the looming shadow of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking juggernaut looms large over the rest of the show.  This isn’t to say it’s a copycat or a wannabe “rip-off” in any way, but it tows such a similar line that it often struggles to break free of those chains and become its own animal.  Musically, Josh Cohen and DJ Walde’s score roots ‘Sylvia’ more in soul and funk than hip-hop, although when rap does creep in, the lyrics do lack the grace and wit of Miranda’s creation and don’t share its natural sense of rhythm.  There are also a lot of songs, perhaps too many, with more individuality needed to distinguish them from each other.  


‘Sylvia’ is the brainchild of choreographer Kate Prince, who also wrote the book (and lyrics) for the show along with directing it and contributing to its music.  While there’s no denying Prince’s talent, when a creative vision is all controlled by a single person, it runs the risk of becoming tunnel vision, and that feels the case here.  Much of Act 1 feels quite “one note” and repetitive, seemingly take long stretches of time to cover small chunks of story while other points are quickly rushed through in a matter of minutes, and the pace suffers early on, although is better in the latter half.  It feels if Prince had input from a few more creatives during the development period, the show would feel more rounded and structured, and with a wider viewpoint.  Despite that, Prince clearly excels at choreography, which is exhilarating, and her vision for the show itself is stunning (helped by stark contrasting costumes and sets by Ben Stones, powerful lighting by Natasha Chivers, and fantastic video and animation by Andrzej Goulding).

Where ‘Sylvia’ also shows influence from ‘Hamilton’ is in its casting, and its decision to cast both black and white performers as white historical figures.  The show is truly colour-blind in this sense, with race never mentioned in the script, and it feels like a purposeful metaphor to drive home the message of equality in terms of binary opposition (men and women, black and white, perhaps even right and wrong).  Having such a diverse cast works with the score being such a fusion of styles and tones, and it’s open to debate as to whether it would be as powerful with an all-white cast.  What there is no debate over is the level of talent on that stage, which is staggering.  Beverley Knight’s vocal talent is legendary and it’s no surprise to learn that she belts every note like a formidable hurricane.  Her acting feels a little stilted at times, perhaps down to the lines often being half-sung in time to the rhythm so her delivery is somewhat confined.  We know from ‘Memphis’ and ‘The Drifters Girl’ what a star turn she can deliver, and her vocals here more than make up for the rest.  Sharon Rose is also exceptional as Sylvia, leading the show once she steps out on her own, and delivering a truly heartfelt performance.  Excellent whether she’s acting, rapping, or singing, it’s a star turn, and reaches its peak during a vocal battle with Knight which is nothing short of exhilarating.  Jade Hackett also adds some much-needed light relief as Winston Churchill’s mother, and steals every scene she’s in, and Sweeney makes for a suitably swoonsome love interest as Silvio, showing off a soulful voice to die for.


‘Sylvia’ completely deserves its second chance at a fully-realised production, and while it still needs some work to fix issues around pacing and narrative balance, it’s an important story told in a vibrant and powerful way with star performances and stunning visuals.  We should never forget what’s gone before us in the search for equality, and ‘Sylvia’ celebrates the strength of the revolutionary women who changed the world forever.


It runs at The Old Vic until Saturday 8th April 2023.


Review: Rob Bartley      Photos: Manuel Harlan