Sylvia review: the schisms of the suffragettes laid bare in storming new musical
Sylvia Pankhurst and the suffragettes bust contemporary dance moves to a soundtrack of hip-hop, funk and soul, retelling the feminist history you thought you knew.
Shining a light on the inner schisms of the Pankhurst family’s struggle for female suffrage, this historical hip-hop musical lays bare the politics, relationships and personalities behind Britain’s female emancipation movement.
Beginning with the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903, Sylvia follows the turbulent road to women’s suffrage. The musical ends 25 years later in 1928 when working-class women were granted the same rights as their middle-class counterparts, who won the vote ten years earlier.
Sylvia’s commitment to including all women in the movement is what drives a wedge between Syliva (played by Sharon Rose), and her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, whose icy disregard for the working class puts her at ideological loggerheads with her daughter.
The indomitable Emmeline, played by a magnificent Beverley Knight, was the driving force behind first-wave feminism which secured the right of landed women to vote in 1918. Sylvia’s offshoot movement, which is what led her to set up the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) in Bow, was founded on equality for all, including working women.
Throughout the two-and-a-half-hour production (including a 20-minute interval), we watch the mother-daughter relationship strain and eventually break, played out through formidable lead vocals, energetic dance routines and high-speed hip-hop bars.
A screen behind the stage provides the audience with basic historical context and place names, lighting up the words, ‘Bow’, ‘Mile End’, ‘Canning Town’, ‘Poplar’ and ‘Bethnal Green’ when Sylvia returns to the working-class heartlands of the East End.
The muted and austere set transports the action from Winston Churchill’s living room to Holloway Prison and finally, the ELFS Headquarters on 400 Old Ford Road, where the socialist red clothing worn by Sylvia’s working class followers provides a striking contrast to the grey and black surroundings.
Though much of the action in Kate Prince’s musical is set in East London, the musical is playing at The Old Vic Theatre in Waterloo. The 1,000-seat theatre is about double the capacity of Theatre Royal or Wilton’s Music Hall, but this independent, not-for-profit theatre feels in line with the enterprising spirit of the East End and is widely considered the crucible of new theatre performances in London.
The musical’s diverse casting endorses Sylvia’s brand of feminism, reclaiming it from Emmeline and her eldest daughter Christabel’s conservative objectives. Nearly the entire script is delivered in song (or rap), littered with knowing cultural winks and contemporary musical references that borrow bars from Eminem and Bow-born Dizzee Rascal.
Kier Hardie, George Lansbury, and the panto villain Winston Churchill are among the well-known historical characters gracing the stage beside the Pankhursts. And while it might seem they’ve tried to squeeze an awful lot of information into one production, the audience is forgiven for not remembering every factual detail.
What sticks with you at the curtains’ close is the determination and triumph of Sylvia and the working-class suffragettes, rousing every audience member out of their seat to share in the fighting spirit of the East End men and women who finally achieve universal suffrage at the play’s end.
For more heritage pieces, read our article about Suffragette Fanny Wilkinson, the UK’s first female landscape gardener who designed Meath Gardens.
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