The much-hyped hip-hop suffragette musical could have gone very wrong – but it triumphs in the face of adversity.
The cast and crew of Sylvia, The Old Vic’s new musical about socialist suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, have been through the mill. Two weeks ago, Genesis Lynea – the West End veteran due to star as Sylvia – collapsed during an open dress rehearsal. Since then, the cast has been hastily reshuffled, with Maria Omakinwa (who was originally down to play Sylvia’s best friend Ada, a fictional amalgamation of several real suffragettes) now in the title role.
The sudden illness of a lead actress is the stuff of theatre nightmares, and the team behind Sylvia is keenly aware that they’re not operating in ideal circumstances. As we enter the theatre, we’re handed a leaflet explaining that the performance is “in a more raw state than the creative team and The Old Vic would ever have planned”. It’s a tense introduction to a hotly-anticipated show.
But any fears that Sylvia wouldn’t live up to the hype were unfounded – because the show is a triumph. Riotously funny and deeply poignant, it swoops thrillingly through the most famous moments of suffragette history (bombs, arson, Emily Wilding Davison leaping in front of the King’s horse) while also telling the messy, human story of the Pankhurst family. Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters are often reduced to one-dimensional feminist totems, but in Sylvia, we see them as women experiencing universal emotions – lust, grief, feeling royally p**sed off with your family – in extraordinary circumstances.
The show is billed as a hip-hop musical, and there are laugh-out-loud references to artists including Eminem, Jay-Z and Dizzee Rascal throughout. But the soundtrack is a joyful mash-up of the most entertaining and moving elements of hip-hop, grime, R&B, funk, soul and gospel. The show’s funniest moment comes when a certain character – I’m not going to say who, because that would ruin the surprise – bursts into an anti-suffrage rap that wouldn’t sound out of place at Notting Hill Carnival, prompting screams of delight from the audience.
The music is so strong that the characters and plot could take second place, but that never happens. At the heart of the story is the complicated relationship between Sylvia, Emmeline (Beverley Knight) and Christabel Pankhurst (Witney White), as well as Sylvia’s illicit love affair with Labour leader Keir Hardie (John Dalgleish).
Beehived, regal and commanding, Knight is perfect as the undisputed leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), while White’s sparkling stage presence captures Christabel’s reputation as a suffragette of unusual charm. And Omakinwa is so good as diligent, principled, conflicted Sylvia that it’s easy to forget she’s only been playing the role for a fortnight.
Cracks appear over the course of the play as the Pankhurst women’s beliefs about politics and tactics diverge: Sylvia is particularly disturbed by Emmeline and Christabel’s autocratic tendencies, their acceptance of violence as a means to an end, and their indifference to the plight of working-class women. The subjects of class politics and intersectional feminism are handled masterfully throughout, especially in the show’s second act, in which Sylvia strikes out on her own to set up the East London Federation of Suffragettes.
But an unshakeable sense of female solidarity runs through Sylvia despite the conflict between the Pankhurst women, and the play’s most emotive moments come when the suffragettes stand together in the face of male violence. In one unforgettable scene depicting Black Friday (the infamous 1910 demonstration at which hundreds of suffragettes were brutally attacked and sexually assaulted by police and male bystanders), the WSPU women form a human rope across the stage, singing even as they’re beaten to the ground by policeman. Sylvia doesn’t shy away from depicting the violence of the suffragettes, but it also underlines just what women went through as they fought for the vote.
There are many more moments I could single out as highlights of Sylvia. Delroy Atkinson and Jade Hackett get the show’s biggest laughs as a dopey Winston Churchill and his mother Lady Jennie Churchill, brilliantly played here as a domineering Caribbean matriarch. And Elliotte Williams-N’Dure is phenomenal as the tough-as-nails militant suffragette Flora “The General” Drummond.
But nothing I can say would do this extraordinary show justice. It’s not perfect: it’s very long, and will likely be trimmed down before any future runs. But when I went to see it, the standing ovation lasted more than five minutes. In difficult circumstances, the team behind Sylvia have pulled off an astonishing victory. And somehow, that feels fitting.
Sylvia is on at The Old Vic from 3-22 September. Get tickets from the box office by calling 0844 871 7628 or at oldvictheatre.com
Images: Manuel Harlan