Review: Sylvia Is An All-Singing, All-Dancing Timeline Of Suffragette Struggle

Sylvia, Old Vic ★★★☆☆

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 12 months ago

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Review: Sylvia Is An All-Singing, All-Dancing Timeline Of Suffragette Struggle Sylvia, Old Vic 3
Kirstie Skivington, Razak Osman, Sharon Rose, Beverley Knight and Ellena Vincent in Sylvia at The Old Vic
Sylvia is an ass-kicking, jiu-jitsu-totin', hip-hop musical about the lesser-celebrated Pankhurst. Image: Manuel Harlan

Early on in the second half of Sylvia, my partner leans over and whispers "Is it wrong I want to boo?"

On stage, a gang of bully boys — underlit in a toxic green, sleeves rolled up — snarl at a group of Suffragettes "I know where you live" — a nauseatingly visceral depiction of the perils faced by any woman with the audacity to speak their mind a century ago. In an age of Andrew Tates, Met police scandals and Tories putting a damper on protest rights, now seems a ripe time for Sylvia — the ass-kicking, jiu-jitsu-totin', hip-hop musical about the lesser-celebrated Pankhurst.

Actually, Kate Prince/Priya Parmar's show debuted in 2018 with well-documented issues, but five years and a major rewrite down the line, Sylvia sashays back as an all-singing, all-dancing chronology of the Suffragette struggle. At the centre of the drama is the fractious relationship between socialist Sylvia Pankhurst (a captivating Sharon Rose), and her implacably radical mum Emmeline (Beverley Knight, on usual god-level singing form, and playing a near-villainous foil to Rose's daughter character.)

Verity Blyth, Jade Hackett and Jay Perry in Sylvia at The Old Vic 2023
Jade Hackett (centre) is the surprise highlight of the night. Image: Manuel Harlan

Sylvia covers an ambitious amount of ground, skimming at speed through protests, debates, elections, acts, hunger strikes, wars — dates and locations flashing up at the back of the stage like a giddy time machine. Sometimes you feel you need a breather, and maybe that's intentional — after all, the Pankhursts and their allies fought a long and dogged campaign. Some exquisite comic turns bring much-needed moments of levity — in particular, Jade Hackett as Winston Churchill's braap-braaping mum. (She brings the house down, and is the surprise highlight of the night.)

Josh Cohen and DJ Walde's score — a more or less constant — will draw inevitable comparisons to Hamilton; it's almost as if the funky beats are propelling the plot forward. Sometimes, this is just what Sylvia needs; at others, there's so much going on, the mother/daughter plot line feels a touch neglected.

Sylvia makes for a swaggering crash course in women's lib history — and should be on the agenda, not just for school kids, but anyone looking to gen up on Britain's tangled and tortuous crusade for equality.

Sylvia, The Old Vic, until 8 April 2023

Last Updated 15 February 2023