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Set to a soundtrack of struggle and protest: Dawn Butler reviews 'Sylvia'

Kirstie Skivington, Razak Osman, Sharon Rose, Beverley Knight and Ellena Vincent in Sylvia at The Old Vic | Image by Manuel Harlan

3 min read

This phenomenal musical depiction of the life of Sylvia Pankhurst will take you on a journey of anger, joy and despair

Sylvia is a must-see musical – it is the United Kingdom’s Hamilton and it will take you on a journey of joy, anger and despair, all told to the soundtrack of hip hop, funk and soul.

This music genre is perfect for the story of Sylvia Pankhurst. I had goosebumps and tears, angry that progress is still so slow – it made me appreciate why I should not give up and how important my presence in the House of Commons is.

The singing is phenomenal and the talent is off the charts. Beverley Knight, who plays Emmeline Pankhurst (the mother), really is one of the best singers in the United Kingdom. Sharon Rose (Sylvia) is a rose by name and nature, the sweetness of her voice is sublime. 

Sylvia is the story of how an influential Pankhurst, who wanted to fight for suffrage for all so that everyone could have a vote, was left out of the history books – and her family. There is a line in the show where she says, “working class men and women are not the enemy”. 

Why is Sylvia’s contribution to universal suffrage so hidden? Why is it that history – always written by the victor, they say – leaves out women such as Sylvia and her other sister Adela Pankhurst? 

Well, Sylvia was very much the agitator for the working-class: working-class men and women. She didn’t just want rich white women to get the vote, she wanted working class women and men to get the vote so that the system would be fair for all. This is very familiar to so much that goes on to this day.

Why is Sylvia’s contribution to universal suffrage so hidden?

History books force people to focus on those who the author has decided should be celebrated. This musical reminds the audience that scientists at this time contested and wrote papers on the so-called fact that women did not have the mental capacity to make decisions: they had to listen to their husbands and stay in the kitchen. 

Seems almost ridiculous now, but with the rise of misogyny you realise that the way history is taught is problematic and has caused a lot of the world’s ills. Why is it that a woman is still killed in this country every three days? 

This musical tells the story of Adela so well. Adela was apparently a lesbian, so of course the history books wouldn’t celebrate her. This is why this contemporary musical is so important. 

Sylvia had me nodding my head to the music and shaking my head to the situation. It also brought back to me a chapter that I have written in my own upcoming book, A Purposeful Life: there have been times in Parliament where I have felt that certain people are deliberately excluded because they don’t fit a certain mould or agenda. It is also so interesting how history tends to repeat itself. 

Hip hop, soul and funk are the music of struggle and protest – and if Sylvia was still alive today, I am sure that she would totally approve of Sylvia the musical.

Dawn Butler is Labour MP for Brent Central

Sylvia 
Directed by: Kate Prince
Venue: The Old Vic theatre until 8 April

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