Director’s Kate Prince’s Sylvia is a thoroughbred, bringing the story of the suffragettes to life with a soundtrack which includes funk, soul and hip-hop was risky but it paid off. At the core of the play the mother daughter relationship, Beverley Knight as Emmeline and Sylvia played by Sharon Rose. Their relationship fractures as they get more and more divided by their different ideals. Emmeline’s focus is women’s rights and Sylvia Pankhurst who is seduced by Labour politician Keir Hardie, would like equality for all.
Knight made her west-end debut in 2013 in The Bodyguard since she has gone from strength to strength fast becoming West End royalty, with us seeing her more recently in the The Drifters’ Girl and Sister Act. In Sylvia she shares the spotlight with Sharon Rose who takes the lead, Rose’s voice is equally powerfully but distantly different. It’s a bonus to have such great voices in the starring roles.
There is a reason why Knight is often referred to as the Queen of British Soul, she reinforces this in Sylvia. There are other stand out vocal performances from ex The Voice contestant Sweeney as Silvio Corio and Verity Blyth as Clementine Churchill. Razak Osman brought some humour as Harry Pankhurst/Sir Almroth Wright/Asquith.
Against the backdrop of a black and white set which also serves as a noticeboard to mark the passing of time, dates and events, the ensemble cast also dressed in black and white deliver strong choreographed dance sets and fine tuned vocals. Hip-hop dance and street dance styles are accompanied by a hip-hop track.
The story is well balanced and is a good celebration of the life of Sylvia Pankhurst the feminist, activist, pacifist, socialist, rebel – who fought and won, changing the lives of working women and men across the world. The musical also gives an insight in her family life, her imprisonment and the death of her son.
The story of this very powerful women’s movement is not lost in the music it actually enhances it, judging by a packed house at the 2:30pm mid-week matinee. Apart from a group of school children the audience were predominately or looked well-over forty but it did not stop the rounds of applause and bopping to music for the whole show. With original music by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde, a book by Kate Prince with Priya Parmar, and lyrics by Kate Prince.
A play worth watching.
Sylvia plays at the OLD VIC until 8 April 2023.