Old Vic, London, until April 8
A hip-hop musical about a subject as serious as Sylvia Pankhurst’s fight for women’s rights was always going to be a challenge in terms of sensitivity and taste. Kate Prince’s Sylvia fails to rise to it and looks from its opening scene like it’s less about suffragettes than majorettes.
Women in black and white outfits on a black and white set launch into a number called First Steps of a Revolution with a great deal of exuberance but very little to work with in terms of the music or the lyrics. The show has been a long time coming to the stage – it was a martyr to the pandemic, and still had technical difficulties which halted the show for a while when I saw it – and it’s certainly not the serious rival to Hamilton that the Old Vic had originally intended it to be.
It’s visually interesting – I liked Ben Stones’ sets and costumes – but too much hasn’t been sufficiently thought through, astonishing given how it started life as long ago as 2018.
As Sylvia Pankhurst, Sharon Rose is no match for Beverley Knight’s scene-stealing Emmeline Pankhurst and this, together with her world-class voice, throws the whole show off balance. It’s not normally done to talk about colourblind casting, but here it is relevant. The principals are both women of colour, along with most of the women they recruit to their cause, which makes a fair point about how many battles there have had to be fought for equality.
The problem is Jay Perry’s Winston Churchill is also a man of colour, which squanders a lot of the dramatic conflict to be had out of him opposing women’s rights in the early days. Alex Gaumond’s Keir Hardie is, meanwhile, done up in a Toad of Toad Hall outfit, and essentially plays it for laughs.
Prince not only directs and choreographs Sylvia, but is also responsible for the script and the lyrics which means there was never going to be a lot of objective criticism coming her way. Still, the show boasts a real star turn in Knight and it made me want to see her in something a lot better than this.