Five years after its work-in-progress run, Sylvia makes a riveting return to the Old Vic as a thrilling full production. Telling the story of the lesser-known suffragette from the Pankhurst family (most people will be more familiar with her mother Emmeline, played by the iconic Beverley Knight), the musical is packed with smooth choreography from Kate Prince, head-bobbing-inducing hip-hop, and colour.
In leading the choreography, co-authoring the book (alongside Priya Parmar), penning the lyrics, and directing the production, it’s clear Prince had an incredibly specific artistic vision for Sylvia, and it is perfectly executed. The lyrics rhyme naturally and with ease, the movements are fluid, and the motif of painting which flows through the entire production (Sylvia herself was an artist) is a small decision which nonetheless successfully encapsulates so much of the plot and the themes explored within it. In particular, it follows Sylvia (Sharon Rose) as she is drawn to Labour’s Keir Hardie and socialist ideology while campaigning for votes for women, much to the consternation of Emmeline and the non-party political group The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The black and white colour scheme is as much a nod to the oppressive and patriarchal view on womanhood as it is symbolic of the WSPU’s refusal to embrace a more inclusive and non-violent approach to suffrage put forward by Sylvia and represented by vibrant red clothing.
On that note, costume designer Ben Stones (Happy Meal) adds some fantastic references in his work, from the black brushstrokes at the bottom of the artists’ aprons being identical to those in Andrzej Goulding’s video design, to the arrows pointing upwards on the women campaigners’ prison outfits alluding to their uprising, and the defiant closing number “Rise Up”.
And what of the songs on offer from Josh Cohen (Some Like It Hip Hop) and DJ Walde (Hymn)? Every single one is plucky and offbeat, with opening song “The First Steps Of A Revolution” being instantly engrossing with its funky bass riff. That a song with the encouraging line “be the change that you want to see” is complete with a catchy melody is also excellent to see, never mind the fact that it is sung during a powerful scene of women standing firm in the face of male violence from the authorities. Performance-wise, there’s a beautiful contrast between Knight and Rose in terms of vocal styles. As the established matriarch Emmeline, Knight regularly belts astonishing notes while Rose possesses a more velvety vibrato to her singing voice. It’s a significant contrast and distinction, but completely complementary.
“Complementary” being the perfect word for this collective triumph from an ensemble cast. One which moves at considerable speed to educate us on an aspect of history which isn’t as widely known. A slight difficulty with this is that the musical’s conclusion feels a tad rushed in blitzing through the years until the campaigners finally secure their victory. When everything else in Sylvia’s life is given ample time to be explored across the two-and-a-half hours, to skip forward in such a way, with no more than a couple of placards to denote developments, numbs the impact a tad.
I’d be more than happy to spend more time with Sylvia, as she is forced to decide whether to put family or politics first, but for what we get, it’s punchy and smart, with an infectious intensity.
Sylvia is now playing at the Old Vic Theatre until 8 April.
A British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted performance is scheduled for 15 March, while a relaxed performance (which will also be captioned and audio described) takes place on 1 April.
Production Images: Manuel Harlan.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Sylvia’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.