Theatre Review: Sylvia, Old Vic Theatre ‘Most Definitely a Work in Progress’

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You have to feel for SYLVIA. It has had such a cursed development, what with cast illnesses, delayed press views and evenings when much of the presentation was abandoned altogether. It was only marginally better the night I went – a broken sound deck forced the show to be suspended twice. As a result, all reviewers have been advised that this is a “work-in-progress”, that it must be assessed as such and that, therefore, full reviews are not requested.

I get that, and I appreciate that, and so this piece works around that. The issue I have is that I don’t feel SYVIA is so much a work-in-progress, but one that is still stuck in development. There are so many issues with this show that it is no way near ready for a paying audience. It isn’t even in a preview state; it needs to go back to the drawing board if it wants to fulfil its potential.

When ZooNation’s Kate Prince first started on this idea, the focus was to create a small dance piece around Sylvia Pankhurst, the second daughter of suffragette leader, Emmeline. Sylvia was a shy and insecure young woman who was bullied by her mother and her older sister, Christabel, but after years of suffering and servitude to the cause of the suffragettes, found her own voice to represent working class women across Britain.

Only what we have now is the beginning of a fully-fledged full-blown contemporary suffragette musical fused with hip-hop, rap and grime and the creative team have not been given adequate time to manage that transition effectively.

The hard-working cast perform what they have with gusto. The piece certainly has energy and spirit, which flows from the stage in a tsunami of pent up feminist rage. And those parts that clearly have been worked on more evidence all of Kate’s hallmark choreography and ZooNation’s fantastic dance experience. Only all this good stuff has not yet been harnessed and shaped into a musical that will work.

The single biggest issue SYLVIA faces is structural.

Musicals about Alexander Hamilton, Eva Peron and even Jesus work because these people were the architects of their own destiny. They made decisions that determined not just their own lives but the lives of countless others. That, categorically, is not the case for Sylvia Pankhurst.

The Women’s Social and Political Union (the formal organisation that ran the suffragettes) was created by Emmeline with help from Christabel. These two reacted to Christabel’s own arrest for protesting during one of Churchill’s speeches – it was Emmeline that responded to the external incident, realising that media attention could be harnessed and manipulated, that led her to create and drive the suffragettes.

It was also Emmeline’s impatience, increased disassociation from repercussions, and her developing tyranny that pushed the suffragettes into extended campaigns of violence and militancy.

For about 15 years, Sylvia was little more than a passenger – a glorious passenger who sacrificed so much for the cause, including being force fed over thirty times – but she did not define or drive the suffragettes. And that is an issue here. How can you make a pivotal main character from a woman who, for the vast majority of this production, literally just wanders on stage to ask her mother and sister ‘what about working-class women? Or ‘Why so much violence?’

An attempt to address this is made with the huge focus placed on Sylvia’s love affair with Keir Hardie, one of the found members of the Labour Party, a friend of her mother’s – and a married man twice her age. But this has the curious effect of marginalising Emmeline Pankhurst almost entirely. She is a peripheral character in this production – a two-dimensional supporting member of the cast – and that’s quite an achievement in a musical about the suffragettes.

In truth, I think the creative team must realise this. This musical is trying to tell two stories – Sylvia’s personal awakening and the history of the suffragettes. Only, as they may now realise, these two tales do not dovetail and converge neatly as, simply, Sylvia was not a driving force in the suffragettes – she was a soldier, not a general.

And though I appreciate I know a lot about suffragette and Pankhurst history so am always likely to be one of those people who picks over inaccuracies, some of the other decisions taken made me uneasy, like the choice to show Christabel and Annie Kenny in a romantic relationship. This is a hotly debated topic and one that lacks any concrete evidence and, these days, is often put down to the salacious perspective of male historians obsessed with the sexual lives of women in the suffragettes.

And, frankly, to get Emily Wilding Davison’s name wrong (she is referred to as “Emily Davidson”) feels almost criminal.

Director, writer and choreographer extraordinaire Kate Prince has clearly done her research as the production is saturated with little references such as Emmeline’s dislike of her son Harry wearing glasses, and Sylvia’s study at the Royal College of Arts – a rare event for any woman. Yet it doesn’t feel that Kate has been given the opportunity to stand back from her volumes of research to think, OK, what is the story here? What do I want to say? Because none of these little trinkets have been allowed to develop into wider indicators that feed into the central narrative.

For example, Emmeline’s obsession with constantly removing Harry’s glasses are tell-tale signs on her tyranny, her lack of compassion, and her intolerance for weakness – traits that would become evident in her autocratic takeover of the suffragettes. That isn’t allowed to develop here.

And the RCA accepting Sylvia to study there was, in life, a sharp contrast to the refusal of Lincoln’s Inn to accept Christabel’s application to study law. That is never brought up here and yet that difference caused a breach between the sisters. Quiet Sylvia was always in fiery Christabel’s shadow and there was a lot of enmity and jealousy between the two. Remarkably, in a play bloated with references, it seems odd to leave that out.

And bloating is a key problem, as I’m sure everyone in the creative team knows – there are too many characters and by trying to tell two different stories, it has lost its focus. Taking big cuts will not just tighten it up, it will allow more nuances to develop as, currently, each character is flat and without complexity. And may even allow some chemistry to develop amongst the principal characters as, now, there is almost none.

Another key problem the creatives will have to face is the music.

It kills me to say this because I am rooting for a suffragette musical all the way but, right now, this show lacks any big, killer number. There’s no equivalent to My Shot, Memory, or Losing My Mind in this score and it desperately needs one. If it’s going to aim for the top, SYLVIA must get itself at least two or three instantly recognisable and classic tracks. For the first half in particular, the music is a merge of the same mid-tempo hip hop beat with little emotional variance.

So, the question is, given that this show is in no state for a paying audience, who made the decision not to cancel its two-week run?

I am not privy to the machinations of decision-making at the Old Vic, nor do I know of the content of any debates that may have been had over whether to let this show take to the stage as planned. But the decision to put it to the sword in front of audiences and people like me seems almost cruel to the creative team. This show evidently isn’t ready.

There is a call for a full-blown suffragette musical – and clearly the demand – but, right now, this is not that musical. It should have been protected more by the powers that be, the creatives should have been supported in the development of this piece, not fed to the wolves so quickly.

Old Vic Theatre, London, to September 22, 2018.
Tickets from £12.

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