In the wake of mega hits ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Emilia’, it feels like a hip hop suffragette musical is what theatre fans are crying out for. But despite a dynamite cast, ZooNation director Kate Prince’s ‘Sylvia’ probably won’t get audiences rioting in the streets. Retooled after an Old Vic run in 2018 that was hastily restyled as a work-in-progress, it’s now polished but painfully polite, steering clear of political rabble-rousing in favour of a historically faithful trundle through early twentieth-century politics.
Sylvia starts out as her mother Emmeline Pankhurst’s protegée. In a song that hits many of the same bases as ‘My Shot’ from ‘Hamilton’ (the first of lots of hard-to-ignore parallels), she outlines her mission: to get the vote for women, with her family’s full support. Sharon Rose’s likeable performance here is full of bright-eyed sincerity, but what’s missing is a sense of the obstreperousness that Sylvia must have had: it’s jarring when she’s tried in court for ‘abusive language and causing a public disturbance’ when all she’s done is rather sweetly call a few men ‘cocks’, with accompanying playground flapping-chicken arms. Matters aren’t helped by the tasteful monochrome full-skirted costumes, either, which make Sylvia’s gang look like they’re about to hand you a plate of buns in some kind of old-timey tearoom.
As Mama Emmeline, Beverley Knight adds a bit of welcome fire, but she feels underused. She incites the gang to march for women’s rights in a gospel-style number that casts her as a revivalist preacher, blasting away all doubt with the sheer power of her voice. And in a second-act highlight, she has an epic falling out with her daughter in a number that finally supplies all the emotional complexity that's been missing so far.
Prince and co-writer Priya Parmar’s book carefully outlines the suffragettes’ early support for the rising Labour Party, followed by the schism that comes as Sylvia opts for socialism while her mother courts the conservative establishment. But, like an anodyne school textbook, it often steers clear of the difficult stuff. Despite (or perhaps because of) the colourblind casting, there’s not much attempt to explore the relationship between the struggle for racial equality and the battle for women's rights, like the role of real-life suffragette of colour Sophia Duleep Singh, for example. The bleakness of early twentieth-century misogyny is eventually gestured to in a song about suffragettes being force-fed in jail, but it comes too late to really establish the stakes here. And despite the whole show being named after her, there’s not really much psychological insight into Sylvia as a person, and what it was that made her such a hated, loved, contradictory figure.
I feel like a curmudgeon for saying all this because ‘Sylvia’ is attempting – and in some ways achieving – something massively ambitious. For all its flaws, it’s never anything less than exciting to watch, thanks to the wit and dynamism of Prince’s choreography, the formidable talents of this note-perfect cast, and powerful songs enlivened with nice little references to everyone from Aretha Franklin to Eminem. With sharper plotting and lyrics, it could soar. For now, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable show that efficiently introduces the suffragettes, without quite working out how to use hip hop to reveal the daring, risk and contemporary relevance of their stories.