By Jay Darcy
As a Mancunian, a feminist and a person of colour, Sylvia is one of the shows I have been most looking forward to. A hip-hop musical, it tells the story of Sylvia Pankhurst, the daughter of the better-known Emmeline, casting Black actors as historical figures, such as the aforementioned and even Winston Churchill!
Casting people of colour as historical figures and telling their stories through modern music seems to be the new standard – from Hamilton to Six, arguably the two biggest musicals of recent years. These creative decisions give historical stories new relevance and relatability. Sylvia appears to be inspired by both musicals but it’s also got its own identity – seen especially through its simple but inventive design.
The designers have opted for a monochrome palette; costumes, set and moving images are exclusively black, white and grey, except for splashes of red, symbolising socialism and the Labour Party (a new political party at the time). I was reminded of the girl in the red coat in the otherwise black-and-white Schindler’s List.
The dull aesthetic did become a little tiresome and monotonous in the first act. It reminded me of Chicago, which similarly has very little colour (and even less set). The repetitive red in an otherwise monochrome world began to feel a little pretentious, and the red was not quite as impactful as the designers thought it would be.
But then came the second act, in which the musical became more invested in socialism and thus the colour red became more significant and, thus, profound. The scene in which Sylvia (Sharon Rose) and working-class activists, all draped in red, celebrate socialism was particularly poignant. The musical dismissed the Suffragettes’ purple, white and green, in favour of socialist red: all the Pankhursts were proud feminists; the central debate (and divide) was their stance on socialism and economic issues.
I now understood the bold design choice; it was a little jarring at first but it paid off. It’s daring, and not everybody will like it, but it sets this musical apart from just about everything else; it has an artistic and aesthetic identity of its own.
As a political junkie (and a literal Politics graduate), my favourite part of the musical was its intelligent interrogation of various, competing political philosophies. Indeed, feminism does not exist in a vacuum; there are countless debates within feminism and amongst feminists. Rather than tell the audience what to think, Sylvia offers a careful consideration of different viewpoints; it celebrates nuance and asks its audience to think critically.
It reminded me of Mandela, which recently had its world premiere at the Old Vic’s (younger) sister theatre, the New Vic. Mandela did not shy away from Winnie Mandela’s penchant for violence, but rather than condemn her, and use her as a means to martyr Nelson, it allowed her to explain her position, in opposition to Nelson’s pacifism. But that was the best part of Mandela; its book was pretty bland, and its politics were not as profound as one expected it to be.
Sylvia, meanwhile, got it just right. It is not patronising but it also doesn’t dumb things down. It’s clever but easy to follow; even those without a deep understanding of politics can break it down (unlike the West End transfer of the New Vic’s Best of Enemies, which I caught earlier on in the day – that play requires its audience to understand politics and possess the ability to think critically).
Whilst I was familiar with Emmeline Pankhurst, especially as a Mancunian (sorta), British education does not think the Suffragettes important enough to teach us much about so I actually learned a lot from this musical.
Emmeline (Beverley Knight MBE) was initially aligned with the then-new Labour Party, especially because of her friendship with its founder and first leader, Keir Hardie. Whilst Hardie was sympathetic with and supportive of the pacifist Suffragists, he disavowed the violent Suffragettes and struggled to get his MPs, members and supporters to get on board with women’s rights at all.
Emmeline became dissatisfied with the Labour Party; she disavowed socialism and shifted right, eventually joining the Conservative Party (especially because of her fear of Bolshevism). I knew that Emmeline ended up a Tory (a horror for all modern Mancunians) but I did not know how she got there; Sylvia succeeded at presenting the iconic feminist’s unfortunate journey to the dark (blue) side.
Christabel (Ellena Vincent) aligned herself with her mother, and the musical made sure to address her queerness. However, Adela (Kirstie Skivington) and Sylvia were, paradoxically, both more and less radical in their thinking. They were less radical in that they were critical of the Suffragettes’ violent tactics but more radical in that they were critical of the Suffragettes’ disinterest in the rights of the working-class.
Emmeline became content with the establishment and status quo as soon as rich women received the right to vote, and Christabel believed that engaging with working-class issues would pose a threat to the fight for women’s rights – and that other issues could easily be tackled once (rich) women had the right to vote. Over a century later, we know that to be incorrect.
Sylvia, meanwhile, became a passionate socialist and fell in love with the married Hardie, before a long-term relationship with Italian anarchist Silvio Corio. She fell pregnant out of wedlock and was cut off by her mother for refusing to marry Silvio (their son was the late Richard Pankhurst OBE).
However, the musical did not address some pretty important points: Emmeline’s defence and celebration of the British Empire, Sylvia’s ardent opposition to imperialism, and Adela’s own political metamorphosis: initially a socialist, her politics became more radical; she founded the Communist Party of Australia before shifting right (even further than her mother) and establishing the fascist Australia First Movement (she wasn’t even an Aussie!). The Pankhursts were not too different from the Mitfords!
For a musical to cast Black actors in lead roles (only Hardie, Adela and Clementine Churchill are played by White actors) to not explore the complex racial politics of the early feminists is a missed opportunity. Like Hamilton (which subversively cast people of colour as the slave-owning Founding Fathers but incorrectly presented the “goodies” as entirely opposed to slavery), it’s a bit of a whitewash.
I take further issue with the omission of Sophia Duleep Singh, a British Suffragette of Indian and German origin. Why cast Black actors as White Suffragettes but neglect to do so much as mention an actual Sufragette of colour?
Sylvia fantastically engages with competing feminist thoughts, and was intersectional insofar as it explored class politics, but there was an elephant in the room – a brown one.
Musically, Sylvia was everything you’d want a hip-hop musical to be. I was bopping along all throughout. The musical’s opening number is fun and groovy but nothing stellar. However, the introduction of Winston Churchill’s mother, Lady Jennie (Jade Hackett), completely shifted the tone and sound. The entire audience had their jaws on the floor; we were not expecting that. Every time Hackett came onstage as Jennie, the audience chuckled and whooped; she stole the show with her powerful rapping and Caribbean swagger.
Kelly Agbowu also offered some brilliant rapping as Flora Drummond (who was nicknamed “The General” for her habit of leading Women’s Rights marches wearing a military-style uniform ‘with an officers cap and epaulettes’ and riding on a large horse).
The musical unsurprisingly cast Hamilton alumni in two of its lead roles: Sharon Rose (Sylvia) is a complex, loveable heroine that everybody will root for, whilst Jay Perry chews up the scenery as the deliciously evil Winston Churchill (yes, Sylvia really is bold!). (The musical also hired a couple of musicians who worked on Six).
Churchill’s sassy and fearless wife, Clementine, is played by the glowing Verity Blyth. Clementine stood firmly in support of women’s rights and loved irritating her husband and mother-in-law.
Sylvia’s first love interest, Hardie, is played by the exceptional Alex Gaumond, who was nominated for Olivier and WhatsOnStage Awards for originating the male lead in the West End cast of Legally Blonde. His other notable credits include the male lead in the first UK tour of We Will Rock You.
Her second love interest, Sylvio (yes, Sylvia and Silvio!), is played by the charismatic Sweeney, who has previously competed on The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, and The Voice (he was a semi-finalist in the tenth season of the latter). He only appeared in the second half of the second act but he immediately captivated the audience.
Emmeline’s other daughters, Christabel and Adela, are played to perfection by Ellena Vincent and Kirstie Skivington, respectively. I just feel bad for rooting for Adela now that I know she became a fascist. It would have been so powerful had the musical revealed that; it was shocking enough when it revealed that Emmeline was a Tory!
Emmeline, herself, is, played by the one and only Beverley Knight MBE, who, of course, gets top billing. Knight was nominated for three Brits as a singer before carving a career in musical theatre, for which she has been nominated for two Olivier Awards and three WhatsOnStage Awards. I’d previously seen her open for Enrique Iglesias and perform with the cast of The Drifters Girl at Big Night of Musicals (both at Manchester Arena) but this was my first time seeing her in an actual musical in an actual theatre, and she did not disappoint. She showed off her powerhouse vocals without drowning out the rest of the cast or overshadowing Rose. Knight and Rose’s dazzling duet, in which mother and daughter battle it out, their vivacious vocals like weapons, is a standout number.
Sylvia is musically flawless, aesthetically daring, politically astute, and perfectly cast. It received rave reviews during previews and even got an extension – it’s so rare for a show to be extended during previews! Whilst it might not reach the heights of Hamilton or be as successful Six, it might. It’s an entertaining and edifying extravaganza that deserves a West End transfer.
Sylvia runs at the Old Vic until April 8.
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