Sometimes the showbusiness Gods smile, and sometimes they don’t. It’s fair to say that Sylvia, a hip-hop musical about Sylvia Pankhurst commissioned as a coproduction between ZooNation, Sadler’s Wells, and the Old Vic, has had an unusually difficult birth. Originally intended as a dance piece, the show apparently morphed into a full-scale through-sung musical during the developmental process; rehearsals were then hit by illness among the cast, early performances in the show’s relatively short run were presented either incomplete or in concert form, and at least one performance was cancelled altogether. As a result, the entire run ended up being labelled as previews, even though the press did eventually review the show, and the (very large) title role was performed by an understudy for most of the three-week run. Programmes were sold with this insert tucked inside the front cover, and patrons were also handed a copy, along with a slip announcing the appearance of an understudy in the leading role (pay attention, Bridge Theatre, THAT’s how you do it), as they entered the auditorium:
You could be forgiven, after reading this, for expecting a train wreck. What a pleasure it is, then, to be able to say that this show, with a few tweaks, has the potential to be a big, big hit. Given that it’s still work in progress, though, it perhaps wouldn’t be fair to write a full, detailed review (also it’s been a long week and I’m going cross-eyed in front of the computer screen). So… random thoughts:
- What the show does well, it does very well indeed. Prince, her composers Josh Cohen and DJ Walde, and bookwriter Priya Parmar have done a generally excellent job of making the struggle for women’s suffrage feel absolutely real, contemporary, and relevant in the context of the treatment of minorities in contemporary Britain. And not just in Britain – as the appalling spectacle of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing reminds us, a story about women fighting against an oppressive patriarchy and winning still resonates pretty much everywhere. We haven’t come as far as we’d like to think.
- Sylvia Pankhurst is a complex, fascinating figure who fought a remarkably brave battle against both the establishment and her own family in order to win the right to vote for all women, rather than just – as Emmeline Pankhurst’s movement initially advocated – for the privileged few, and whose fierce pacifism placed her at odds with the protest movement she grew up in. It’s a really good story, and it also reminds us that Emmeline Pankhurst was a rather more problematic figure than history sometimes suggests.
- Josh Cohen and DJ Walde’s roof-raising music blends hip-hop, funk, r & b, and soul into a potent theatrical stew. The show is packed with great numbers; I want a cast album, dammit, and I want it NOW.
- Prince’s lyrics aren’t always as good as Cohen’s music, although it’s not always easy to tell because the sound design – step forward, Cement Rawling – is deeply terrible.
- The lighting design – by Natasha Chivers – is also (let’s be kind) underwhelming, and (let’s be very kind) needs to be completely rethought before the show returns, which it apparently will. There’s a fine line between ‘atmospheric’ and ‘dim’, and for too much of the show Chivers’s lighting is (again, let’s be very kind) on the wrong side of it.
- Having said that, given what we must assume was a fairly chaotic rehearsal and tech period, it perhaps shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the show’s tech elements aren’t quite working as they should.
- Holy shit, those voices. Stunning, thrilling vocals from the whole cast, and particularly from Maria Omakinwa (Sylvia, standing in for Genesis Lynea, who was ill for much of the run), Beverley Knight (Emmeline Pankhurst), and Carly Bawden (Clementine Churchill and Annie Kenney). Even the smallest roles are impeccably sung.
- Prince’s movement is frequently superb. The Act One finale – a line of women stand firm against policemen trying to beat them down – is all the more powerful, somehow, for the clever way Prince abstracts the scene so the blows never connect: the women are at stage level, the men are on a platform above, so we see all the aggression and the tremendous courage that it must have taken to stand up to it. It’s a breathtaking moment, and the best thing in the show. The song – ‘Be the Change’ – is also (that word again) absolutely stunning.
- Casting minority performers as characters who, historically, were white isn’t simply a rip-off of Hamilton. Coming after months of horrifying news stories about our PM, when she was Home Secretary, enacting policies that resulted in the deportation of actual citizens, in most cases simply because they forgot to file some paperwork in 1971, it’s all too easy to see the resonance in terms of how the UK’s political establishment looks upon people it considers inferior. Without making the point explicitly (as far as I could tell – as I said, the sound system is really, really bad), the show constantly reminds us that while Sylvia Pankhurst and her cohorts eventually won their chosen battle, ninety years later the struggle for equality in this country is by no means over, and the attitudes that kept the establishment from giving women the vote are most certainly still in play (Want an example? Look at the bullshit process the government has laid out for EU citizens living in the UK post-Brexit, in which people who came to this country entirely legally, built their lives here, paid taxes, contributed to their communities and all the rest of it are going to be forced to retroactively apply to be granted the “privilege” of remaining in their homes, at a cost of £65 each.).
- And speaking of casting, whoever had the idea of getting Delroy Atkinson to play Winston Churchill as Ben Vereen is a genius.
- Carly Bawden absolutely nails the withering sarcasm of Clementine Churchill’s anonymous pro-suffragette letter to the Times. It’s a terrific song, too (and it’s based on a real letter).
- I can’t imagine a better performance in the title role than the one I saw Maria Omakinwa give at the Wednesday matinee in the last week of the run. It’s a huge, strenuous part, and she was absolutely sensational.
- Criticisms? The show as it stands is too long. It ran a little over three hours, partly because the interval overran (there aren’t enough toilets in the Old Vic, and it was a more or less full house). It needs to lose at least twenty minutes, and preferably half an hour.
- For the most part, Prince and her collaborators tell their story very clearly, but the way the show uses narration needs to be refined. There’s a moment near the top of Act Two where a woman seizes control of the narrative from the male narrator, and it’s very powerful and gets a huge laugh – but then the idea is thrown away. In the context of the show’s overall story, it maybe wouldn’t hurt to make the battle for control of the narrative into an ongoing push/pull between those performers, rather than just making a one-off gag of it.
- Basically, the show needs editing. There’s too much of a good thing here, and the sheer length of the show means it sometimes loses focus (to be fair, that’s truer in the first half than the second). It doesn’t necessarily need big draconian cuts – there’s some dead weight, but little fat, which means every moment of the show needs to be tightened and sharpened.
Overall, Sylvia is very nearly a major triumph. Despite a production process in which it seems nearly everything that could have gone wrong did, it’s an exciting show with enormous potential. If I was producing it, I’d get a concept album out as quickly as I could – this music has huge crossover potential, and the show, as I said, deserves to be a huge hit. Provided Prince and her collaborators don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater when they’re revising the show after this tryout run, it easily could be.
Oh yes, and one more thing: when I rule the universe, and the day will come, people who check their text messages in the theatre while the lights are down will be duct-taped to the front wall of the theatre building by their pubic hairs and left there as a warning to the world. Yes, I’m talking to YOU, Mr. Twentysomething Entitled Arsehole sitting to my left during Act One (he left at intermission). It’s a theatre, not your living room; light bleeds a surprisingly long way from phone screens, it’s very distracting, and we all paid to watch THE SHOW, not your childishly theatrical affectation of boredom (granted, you are probably a product of your upbringing; I assume the lady sitting to YOUR left was your mother, and her manners also wouldn’t have won any prizes). If you can’t behave in public like a civilised adult, please do us all a favour and stay home.