Review by Daz Gale
As part of their 2023 season, The Old Vic are bringing back several shows that have played there in the past. Ahead of the return of Groundhog Day and their now annual tradition A Christmas Carol, Sylvia is back to settle a score after some unfinished business from its first outing. The question is, after waiting so long to open properly, would it end up getting my vote?
Following its 2018 run which ended up becoming a work in progress, Sylvia is back at The Old Vic this time fully staged and fully realised. Telling the story of Sylvia Pankhurst – the lesser known Pankhurst at the heart of the Suffragette movement, as she fights to get votes for women alongside and against her mother Emmeline.
Beverley Knight returns to the role of Emmeline Pankhurst she originated in the 2018 run. Since then, she has gone on to prove her capabilities as an actress with shows including The Drifters Girl and Sister Act and this shows as her performing ability continues to go from strength to strength, delivering a truly powerhouse performance in a challenging role that sees her almost being villainous in certain moments. Beverley is always a wonder to watch and here may be better than ever before, showing off her countless talents including, of course, THAT sensational singing voice.
The title role of Sylvia is played by Sharon Rose, giving an absolute masterclass performance here. Sharon perfectly taps in to Sylvia’s character, making her gradual journey and growth as a person feel authentic. Dominating the events of the show, Sharon exudes a beautiful warmth that allows a real connection to the character in a convincing and elegant performance.
The impressive talent in the cast goes way beyond its two leads with Ellena Vincent a highlight as Christabel Pankhurst and Kirstie Skivington playing her second Pankhurst in a year in a winning turn as Adela. Kelly Agbowu is brilliantly dominating as ‘The General’ while Alex Gaumond delights as Keir Hardie in a performance that in other hands may have felt fairly one-note.
Jay Perry is a standout with his portrayal of Winston Churchill in a performance that feels like it could have come from his time in Hamilton. Even when he is dismissing the womens plights, such is the calibre of his performance, it makes it impossible to dislike him. Equally enjoyable is Verity Blyth as his wife Clementine. However, they are both completely outshone by Lady Jennie Churchill, played here by Jade Hackett in what could be the single most scene-stealing performance I’ve ever witnessed. From her facial expressions, the way she walks on and off stage and of course her unexpected musical numbers, this is a performance that demands to be heard and is one you can expect to remember long after leaving the theatre.
As impressive as the cast is the top quality staging this production of Sylvia has to offer. Set and costume design from Ben Stones takes a relatively drab black and white colour palette and makes it interesting with its gradual increase of red. In what might not seem the most exciting of sets, it is constantly surprising and delighting in a show that is always visually stunning. This is helped with the video and animation from Andrzej Goulding and stunning lighting from Natasha Chivers. Sound design from Tony Gayle ensures Sylvia always sounds every bit as good as it looks, making the most of the versatile types of music on offer.
Kate Prince’s direction brings all of these elements to life in beautiful fashion. Kate is also responsible for the choreography, which may well be the strongest element of Sylvia. The way characters move, mostly in unison, is truly breath-taking to behold. It is the bigger musical numbers where the intricacy of the choreography really shines through with ‘Its All Good’ and ‘Suffrajitsu’ just two examples of it at its best.
The music by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde and lyrics by Kate Prince brings a varied mix of songs from genres such as hip-hop, funk and soul in a musical that feels refreshing and not too dissimilar to Hamilton. The diverse styles goes from Lady Jennie Churchills surprising ‘Women Are Stronger In The Home’ to the fairly cringeworthy ‘Sylvia, Silvio’. It’s the moments Beverley and Sharon get to show off their insane vocals that really gives you goosebumps though, with Beverley shining on ‘Make Some Noise’ and the powerful act one closing numbers ‘March Women March’ and ‘Be The Change’ seeing both take the roof off the Old Vic.
An element that is slightly less successful is the book. Undoubtedly stronger on its more creative elements where music and dance take the forefront, the dialogue at times can feel slightly clunky and perhaps not as fleshed out as you would like. While it is based on real events, there is something fairly unsatisfying on the conclusion regarding Emmeline’s character which didn’t quite feel befitting of a character so prominent in the story. This is a show I have followed since its 2018 debut at The Old Vic and on what was my third visit to the show, I could see the progression it has made. It is clearly a lot more put together now and has been tightened up substantially, however I do feel it might not be quite perfect yet and could use one or two minor tweaks to elevate this admittedly remarkable show further.
It feels an obvious comparison to say Sylvia is extremely reminiscent of Hamilton. There is then the argument that not every hip-hop musical has to be inspired by Hamilton or is trying to be it. However, there are far too many similarities in Sylvia that can’t be coincidental. Moments of dialogue seem directly lifted from it while other musical moments are far too close to it. Perhaps this was intentional as the show is brilliantly littered with other hip-hop references (look out for nods to songs from different genres over different decades) but for me, I’d have liked to have seen Sylvia carve out more of its own identity as it is more than good enough on its own.
It may have taken longer than hoped to get what it wanted but the proper world premiere of Sylvia was more than worth the wait. An exceptional cast led by a possibly career best by Beverley Knight and a powerhouse performance from Sharon Rose mix with strong production elements in a show that is always truly captivating to see and hear. Taking such an important aspect of history and retelling it in such a new way elicits a powerful response. While it might not be completely perfect as yet, its imperfections are what adds to its charms in a show you can’t help but fall in love with.
Sylvia plays at The Old Vic until 8th April. Tickets from oldvictheatre.com
Photos by Manuel Harlan