Sylvia – Review

Sylvia: Old Vic, London

11th February 2023


After debuting in 2018 Sylvia, which tells the story of the lesser known Sylvia Pankhurst and her fight for women’s votes, is back at the Old Vic in London. Despite lots of issues with the original production it soon gained many fans who have been waiting patiently for its reprisal. After 5 years, there have been lots of edits and improvements and this all-new production of Sylvia is powerful, empowering and moving.

Following on from recent trends such as Hamilton and Six where a historical story is shown through modern, hip-hop style Sylvia is set to attract and engage a wide range of audience members. Kate Prince, artist director of ZooNation, certainly knows how to put a show together and Sylvia is no exception. She, along with her team, manages to mix  hip-hop, dance, soul and funk to create a modern, fresh take on history 100 years after the first women in Britain got the vote. Co-written with Priya Parmar and with original music by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde this musical sets out to educate people not only about women’s history but Sylvia Pankhurst herself. 

Beverly Knight reprises the role of Emmeline Pankhurst, perhaps the most famous of the suffragette movement. Her outstanding vocals and strong presence make her a perfect leader. However, her story is quite controversial, along with Christabel Pankhurst, played excellently by Ellena Vincent. For many, she is the only one we have been taught about but this show is not about her but that of her daughter – the lesser-known and perhaps even more powerful Sylvia Pankhurst played by Sharon Rose. Sharon’s vocals are beautiful, as is the depth and passion that she gives the character. Jay Perry is brilliant as Churchill and Alex Gaumond’s deep, rich vocals as Keir Hardie really work well. There are no weak links in the show. Each cast member is excellent – from their acting to singing to their outstanding dance.

Sylvia has been updated and modified since its debut. In fact two new songs have been added and there are lots of current references made which gets the audience sniggering along. The end of the first act is just as powerful as during the 2018 production and the revised placement of ‘Stand Up‘ is powerful. The writers have managed to have a mix of upbeat, powerful numbers and quiet, moving songs perfectly so that the contrast is stark at times but extremely effective.

The set, designed by Ben Stones, is simple and effective. The use of simple cubes as set pieces works brilliantly not to detract from the action taking place. The projections, which are used throughout the show, designed by Andrzej Goulding are also very effective. Not only do they keep in style with the modern feel of the show but also help to set the scene. It is also good to be able to see the talented onstage band at various times throughout the show. The costumes, by Ben Stones, are cleverly designed so that each character has their own unique, subtle variation of the same outfit creating almost a uniform for the suffragettes whilst also showing their individuality. The black and white greyscale colouring of the entire production, with the exception of the postbox-red scarf and socks depicting the Labour Party, again shows the oppression of the women at this time and works brilliantly.

The choreography and direction by Kate Prince remains reminiscent of her work with ZooNation. The choreography is pacy, fresh and modern. Although the story is in the early 1900’s, the modern hip-hop style of dance works well and every minute onstage is utilised by the talented cast. Full of strength and power, Sylvia tells the story of women’s justice in a unique way. Whilst this is a production about Sylvia Pankhurst, it is much more than that. It touches on more than just justice and votes for women, but also treatment of the working class, homophobia and empowerment. The conscious decision to have a such a diverse cast is fantastic.

Sylvia is a powerful and yet fun musical. Full of high-octane dancing whilst also having moving, sentimental pieces. The perfect way to find out more about the suffragette movement and of course Sylvia Pankhurst herself. With outstanding choreography, an amazing cast and a truly diverse blend of music this is is a show not to miss this spring.

Sylvia is playing at the Old Vic until 8th April 2023. For information and tickets click here.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

To check out my previous review of Sylvia in 2018 click here. Other ZooNation reviews can be seen here: Message in a Bottle, Some Like it Hip Hop, Tales of the Turntable

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