The battle to get Kate Prince’s musical SYLVIA out of previews continues to be almost as painful as the fight for women’s suffrage itself, but when it eventually does open, it’s set to be a hit. SYLVIA is to remain in previews at The Old Vic due to a run of bad luck ranging from cast sickness to technical difficulties. However, as the story about the second Pankhurst daughter, Sylvia, exemplifies, women are more than used to dealing with adversity and I’m sure the troubles of the past month are nothing the show can’t overcome.
Originally commissioned as a dance piece to celebrate 100 years since some women gained the right to vote in the UK, SYLVIA then evolved into a fully-fledged musical, one that’s in desperate need of some fine-tuning. Its length, made longer still by disruptive technical issues, is a problem that ZooNation is aware of, but the training of understudies took priority over making cuts, which seems odd since several songs feel painfully unnecessary.
More development time for this show may be a blessing. It’s trying too hard to fit into the musical category, undeniably influenced by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, and there’s even a “Go, Go, Go Joseph” moment when Sylvia ends up in prison. It doesn’t need to try so hard — its unusual origins give it an opportunity to carve out its own place in the world of musical theatre.
One thing that can’t be faulted is the cast. Working under a frustrating set of circumstances they remained dedicated, professional and entertaining as hell, not to mention the fact that they are all extraordinarily talented. It’s hard to believe that Maria Omakinwa is understudying the role of Sylvia. It’s also difficult to understand why Elliotte Williams-N’Dure isn’t given a bigger role — not that it matters, she uses her casting as ‘The General’ to showcase just how exceedingly gifted she is. Surprise to no one, Beverley Knight is a brilliant Emmeline Pankhurst, as she gives a passionate, direct and commanding performance.
Alongside the story of Sylvia’s estrangement from her mother and sister, as they choose a more militant route towards suffrage, runs a parallel love story between Sylvia and the founder of the Labour party, Keir Hardie. Hardie is played by John Dagleish, who’s annoyingly good for a play in which your attention wants to be fixed on the women. The show’s story and timeline, adapted by Kate Prince and Priya Parma, works really well, there are just far too many songs, many of which are too long on their own.
The story’s staging is simple but effective. As expected with a show about the Pankhursts, there are a lot of rallies, but the staging means they’re not uniform or boring; the audience becomes part of the rally as the cast dance with their backs to us, all eyes on the speaker.
There are obvious issues with SYLVIA, but once they’re fixed I see no reason why it can’t go on to be a huge success. The fight for women’s suffrage is an important part of British history that deserves to be celebrated and showcased in a production as impressive as this one. And who knows, maybe by the time we’re celebrating 100 years since all women got the vote in 2028, SYLVIA will be ready to go.
SYLVIA played at The Old Vic until 22 September. For more information, click here.