Review of ‘Sylvia’: “You don’t fight hatred with more hatred”

London’s new historical musical continues to strike at the Old Vic’s stage through its revised telling of the suffragette movement. Guillermo Nazara reviews this original piece that’s become one of the latest talks of the town, to let us know if the commotion is worth the hype.

It’s really not our problem. It may sound as a statement from the privileged, but surprisingly (or maybe, not so much), this has become the usual comeback when reason attempts to debunk the dogmas of radicalized activism. Fight for equality… as long as it benefits you – even if it that’s incredibly unfair to the others. You can always use the excuse of vindictive payback, can’t you? For nothing works better than creating a common enemy and lure your target into the farces of victimism to make the masses do as you please. It can work through political discourse, social media activism (both pretty much the same brainless rubbish, though)… and of course, also through fiction. At least, Sylvia is another story.

Set in turn-of-the-century London, during the outburst of universal suffrage thinking, the plot provides a perfect opportunity for advocates (you know which acronym I’m referring to) to do what they do and enjoy best: demonizing the present by living through the past. There’s one thing not only to praise but probably also to be thankful for to this show: it avoids feeding from bile – and it criticizes it extensively too.

With book and lyrics by Kate Prince, also serving as the production’s director and choreographer, the piece is a joyous though reflective ride on the dangers of identitary policies and the need for logos to triumph over pathos. Starring Sharon Rose in the title role of socialist Sylvia Pankhurst, it accomplishes sufficient richness as for its themes – intricately weaving the main topics of social struggle with its characters’s personal vulnerabilities. We’re presented to a young idealist whose beliefs will be confronted with her mother’s teachings, not because they disagree on their basis, but on what should be done and how it should be done. One says right for women. The other says rights for all…

Featuring an appealing, dance-inducing score by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde, the musical renditions are, along with its visuals, the other high point of the show. Its mixture of rhythmical compositions with a more melodic approach (after all, this has already been nicknamed the British Hamilton) succeeds at packing the performance with extremely entertaining, sometimes noteworthy, moments. However, it does feel at the same time that many of them are rushed – in this case, not entirely provided with the necessary progressions towards a fully satisfying climax.

A similar problem can be spotted in the script’s pacing, as despite’s the thoroughness given to its storyline, several parts appear to move a bit too quickly (even in the transitions from number to number) – therefore not allowing the viewers to completely digest the emotional process the characters are going through. That could also stem from the fact that the cast, despite its technical brilliance (both their vocal and dancing skills are a definite must-go argument) play it too safe on the whole, also with some slight mechanism. They are capable of bringing edginess and further truth to their portrayals, but for some reason (that perhaps being the fact that they have grown too accustomed to what they’re doing) it’s not there that much.

Despite the flaws (in all fairness, almost no show can be spared of them), Sylvia manages to gratify the public on several levels – combining bits of critical thinking (a goal this art should aim for more often) with a refreshingly alluring appearance. With a revised but amusing look on a crucial time for historical change, the chances for you to have more fun than the actual marchers are guaranteed.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Sylvia plays at London’s Old Vic Theatre until 8 April. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Nazara

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