Friday, 17 February 2023

Theatre review: Sylvia

Sometimes theatre rewrites history; for instance, the official line on Kate Prince (book & lyrics,) Priya Parmar (book), Josh Cohen & DJ Walde's (music) Sylvia is that it got a short work-in-progress run in 2018, whereas the way I remember things it was sold as part of the regular season, and only had its entire run reclassified as previews when it lost its leading lady early on. In any case, when I saw it the first time I thought there was a lot about it that was promising, but that it certainly still needed a lot of work before you could call it finished. Four and a half years later enough of that work's been done for Prince's production to return to the Old Vic for its official premiere, largely with a new cast but keeping a couple of its original stars, most importantly the powerhouse Beverley Knight as the title character's mother, legendary suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.

Pankhurst and her four children tirelessly fight for women's suffrage in the early decades of the 20th century, but as far as their goals and methods are concerned it's her way or the highway.

Oldest daughter Christabel (Ellena Vincent) militantly toes the line, but the youngest Adela (understudy Kate Ivory Jordan) and especially the middle daughter Sylvia (Sharon Rose) have their own ideas, which put them at odds with their fearsome mother. Ideologically, Sylvia objects in particular to the scope of the suffragettes' demands: At this point there wasn't even universal adult male suffrage, and Emmeline is fighting to initially get women the same, limited share of the vote. But Sylvia wants to tie their aims in with the Labour Party's demands for the vote to be extended regardless of class and economic status.

Looking back at my initial review, where I thought the earlier version of Sylvia fell down was in length and structure - it seemed to be trying to cram in a lot of very specific historical detail that may well have given a rounded picture of Sylvia Pankhurst but didn't exactly result in a sleek night of entertainment. The creatives seem to have agreed that these were the weak spots as the book seems to be where most of the work has been done (Lolita Chakrabarti has also been drafted as a dramaturg.) The narration's gone, leaving the show almost entirely through-sung, and Sylvia's story has been focused more closely on a couple of plot arcs: Her increasingly fractious relationship with her mother, and her long-lasting affair with Labour founder Keir Hardie (Alex Gaumond - I had to tell Vanessa that the accent he was aiming for was actually Scottish.) The late introduction of her later love interest Silvio (Sweeney,) whose name she can never remember despite it being literally the male version of her own, also feels like it's been a bit better integrated into the plot.

There's also a parallel storyline for the Pankhursts' political nemesis Winston Churchill (Jay Perry,) who ends up caught between his mother (Jade Hackett reprising her crowd-pleasingly weird take on Lady Jennie as a forceful West Indian auntie) and wife Clementine (Verity Blyth) and their opposing views on women's suffrage. The show isn't afraid to show Churchill as a hardline right-winger and shameless political opportunist.

But if Churchill comes out of things badly it's nothing to Emmeline Pankhurst: Knight may have a warm stage presence but she isn't afraid to exchange that for a chilling ruthlessness in the woman who'll take advantage of anything - including the death of Emily Davison (Kimmy Edwards) before the body's even cold - to achieve equality (within the very specific parameters of necessary equality as defined by herself.) The eventual breaking off of all relations with Sylvia is sad but feels inevitable, as does Emmeline taking advantage of the changes she's helped make to run for office as a Tory.

Knight and Rose match each other for powerful but controlled vocals - I think the reason Knight is always such a treat to see on stage is that she can blow you away with her voice without resorting to showy vocal gymnastics, if she is going to belt a note out she'll wait and do it when it's going to cause the maximum emotional devastation thankyouverymuch. Cohen and Walde's songs are satisfyingly varied and almost impossible not to nod and tap along to, although they never quite come up with the one or two standout tunes that get stuck in your head after the show's over. Prince is primarily known as a choreographer and the dance is where her show's strongest moments lie - together with Ben Stones' designs, monochrome except for splashes of Labour red, they create some great imagery. I still think the claims that Sylvia could give Hamilton a run for its money are overly optimistic, but it's vastly improved; you probably couldn't pass an exam on the Pankhursts after watching it now, but you will come away with some stuff you didn't know before (yes, Suffrajitsu was real,) and be entertained for the duration.

Sylvia by Kate Prince, Priya Parmar, Josh Cohen and DJ Walde is booking until the 8th of April at the Old Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

No comments:

Post a Comment