Friday 21 September 2018

Theatre review: Sylvia

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The entire run of Sylvia has been reclassified as work-in-progress previews.

The actual reason for this is that the already-short run of Kate Prince, Priya Parmar, Josh Cohen and DJ Walde's suffragette musical was cut even shorter by cast illness, with the need to rehearse understudies meaning a number of performances were cancelled - including the one I was initially booked to see. As it turns out, the work-in-progress label is also justified, as there's clearly an outstanding evening at the theatre here somewhere - it's just struggling to get out of what's actually made it onto the stage. Whether it was a rush to get this on stage for the centenary of (some) women getting the vote, or to remind people that the Hip-Hop musical didn't start and end with Hamilton, Sylvia has arrived in front of an audience before it's quite ready. Sylvia Pankhurst (understudy Maria Omakinwa, excellent,) was part of the legendary family of women fighting for the vote, but her beliefs on non-violence and the inclusion of working-class women in their demands put her at odds with her mother and sister.

Emmeline (Beverley Knight) and Christabel (Witney White) would eventually expel her from their chapter, but we go back in time to see them in more united times along with Sylvia's other sister Adela (Verity Blyth) and brother Harry (Karl Queenborough,) whose death will eventually be one of the things that puts a wedge between his siblings.

The story also follows Sylvia's years-long affair with Labour Party founder Keir Hardie (John Dagleish) while making a nemesis of a young Winston Churchill (Delroy Atkinson,) whose overbearing mother becomes a highlight of the show, turned into a rapping Jamaican in Jade Hackett's entertaining performance. In fact there's no weak links in the cast, and the show's full of great music and dance. Too full, though - it's in the length and structure where Sylvia feels like it's been let out of the box a few drafts too early.

Currently coming in at well over three hours, the show's in desperate need of some trimming but also feels a bit clumsily put-together; I wonder if the writers are trying to stick quite closely to the real chronological order, as some things don't make sense structurally - like introducing a new love interest for Sylvia, Silvio (Todd Holdsworth) as the show approaches the three-hour mark. There's also things that feel like they haven't been entirely thought out - after the interval the male narrator (Tachia Newall) is informed in no uncertain terms that a woman can do his job just as well, but his replacement by Hackett seems to get forgotten later on. Matthew Warchus has hinted that, following this troubled first run, Sylvia will return to the Old Vic for another crack at it at a later date. I hope this is used as an opportunity to overhaul it, as there's some great music to be enjoyed, and a great story in there somewhere if they can figure out what parts they most want to tell; in the meantime this has promise, but feels far from the finished article.

Sylvia by Kate Prince, Priya Parmar, Josh Cohen and DJ Walde is booking until the 22nd of September at the Old Vic (returns only.)

Running time: 3 hours 15 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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