Musical Militants: Sylvia, Old Vic, London

Susan Tailby
11 min readMar 20


Compressing the dramatic lives of the Pankhursts was always going to be challenging — even at two and a half hours, there are so many achievements and adventures left out. Such as Christobel’s preaching career (and political panelist/commentator in America), or conjecture that women should only be mothers at home. Or Sylvia fighting fascism, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia/Ethiopia and becoming a lifelong friend of Emperor Hailie Selassie. Or Adela (who?) promoting women’s rights in Australia…

I had huge expectations of Katie Prince’s latest hip hop musical theatre endeavor — I love the music, dancing, the emotions and artistry. However it is much less subtle, nuanced and a bit of a historical rewrite (with excellent staging, beats and tunes). I didn’t expect to come away defending Winston Churchill — and yet I am — he isn’t given a fair hearing here. Infact none of the establishment men are — they are all one dimensional fools, who sing and dance and lisp and caper. This is in stark contrast to the range of emotions given to the father seeking to control the sun and time itself (and men and women, his daughter even) in Some Like It Hip Hop. Or the deep nuance of Message in a Bottle as a man is able to be free in his relationships — finally, or the husband struggling to come to terms with his wife’s rape.

Here we (as the audience) aren’t allowed time or space to understand or engage with the Suffragettes opponents — they are purely comedy side shows for us to mock, boo, despise and hiss. What misguided misogynist duffers they are — how stupid their views, how offensive, how Churchill…Which is a shame — Prince’s work is normally so much about promoting understanding, coming together, considering those who differ from us (even if we can’t agree or walk with them).

Winston Churchill is firmly portrayed as an upper class twit (hen pecked and woman dominated, and essentially Bertie Wooster in a political guise — complete with oversized morning dress to show what a fool he is). Whilst it’s become very fashionable to bash Churchill (literally with his statue); you can’t, for all his foibles, ignore the fact that he was a great orator, intelligent, a good leader in terms of facing a very determined invader and actually good at his job, he worked incredibly hard, he did his duty when duty was needed — even if he did try to break a Pankhurst sister’s arm once. He was also very sensitive, and given women who were not trying to attack or murder him — sympathetic to women and their desire for the vote and a voice in life. Instead, the musical writes Winston Churchill off as determinedly evil — which though he was complex and had some sexist/racist/classicist attitudes — he still did achieve some good things. Instead we never get inside his thoughts or reasons for why he thought women’s suffrage a terribly bad idea, or why he and his mother were horrified at the idea of Clemmie writing politically inspired letters to the editor. I’m not defending his wrong attitudes or ideas, just that he wasn’t entirely wrong or to be written off, and that he isn’t given dimensions or anything beyond caricature here. Give Churchill a chance! (I find myself thinking — unexpectedly).

Better was the portrayal of Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome (Churchill) as a very strong woman indeed — ‘Winston, hear me now!’ was a classic — as was the fight over tea things between Clementine and Jennie for Winston’s soul. The melodic meeting between Clemmie and Winston was lovely too and felt more truthful — we saw more of the sensitive Winston here, full of emotion and how much they loved each other. Though naturally he is an appalling figure of fun throughout. He also wasn’t the only leader expressing doubts (perhaps linked to class, status etc) and a lot of it seemed to be linked to social disorder (such as hitting him with a dog whip and trying to push him into the path of an oncoming train in 1909). If only we’d seen Winston being attacked and then saved by Clemmie… For an interesting read about Winston and the suffrage issue, see here —,to%20break%20up%20his%20speeches.

And lest we forget, this is a man who really esteemed his daughters and many women in his life — something we don’t see in the musical at all , he barely has a brain—

More appalling was the Cat and Mouse Act (where Suffragettes could be imprisoned, released due to ill health caused by hunger strikes and force feeding and then imprisoned again once they were on the mend). This is portrayed really well, as is the implied force feeding. What isn’t shown ofcourse is the sexualized nature of attacks on suffragettes — some hunger strike prisoners experienced horrific and bizarre forced feeding through the vagina or anus. There was also the attempt to humiliate and intimidate on their Black Friday march to the Houses of Parliament in November 1910 — where women were deliberately roughed up, assaulted, raped and their skirts pulled up, clothes torn off and pulled about, shamed and dragged into side streets, hit — as arrests were made. Seeing that the majority of the WSPU were upper and middle class women by this time, the message being sent was a definite ‘pipe down and know your place’. An extreme Beth Moore ‘go home’ situation. Perhaps Churchill even saw them as class traitors, as undesirable as Irish Home Rulers. (Not really mentioned by the production was that this was the Met with male onlookers joining in — it was a social-cultural free for all — and was the onlooker attack class inspired too?) Black Friday (1910) — Wikipedia

Nor do we see Rosa May Billinghurst having the wheels stolen off of her wheelchair and where is the Princess Sophia Dulip Singh? There is diversity on stage — but not enough…

However, (not seen here), Home Secretary Churchill sympathised with the suffragists (of whom there were many, the WSPU was viewed more as a vocal and increasingly terrorist minority of cranks). As usual the Suffragettes are the ones who win the vote, ignoring the years and years of campaigning by peaceful suffragist groups — and perhaps that it was the women laying down arms to build arms and run the country during World War One which impressed the most — and got some of them the vote in the end. Obviously these horrors couldn’t be shown night in night out (and at matinees), so we see a line being battered, broken, but bouncing back for more. Wilding Davison’s horrible death under the King’s Horse is creatively done — but doesn’t have any of the power of the horrible and fluttering news footage of the time. The King is reduced to yet another upper class twit — in darkness with epaulettes. Only he again was much more nuanced. And it’s a shame we don’t see more of Wilding Davison than a keen bee, ignored by the Pankhursts, because her hidings, hammerings and catch me if you can moments would have made great hip hop theatre — Emily Wilding Davison and Parliament — UK Parliament

I didn’t realise but Emily Wilding Davison was in her early forties when she died — taking a stand for well educated, unmarried, voteless women everywhere.

Moreover, it’s all about the Pankhursts — mostly Emmeline’s domination (even distancing from socialism and their Mancunian roots, cancelling constitutions at will and ignoring working class women and men). It’s only the younger women we see imprisoned and tortured by force feeding — Emmeline went through this too, and is shown as too much of a harsh leader and controlling mother. Nor do we see their use of media image — in a mud coloured production with splashes of red — there is no purple, white and green branding here. Nor do we see the lady like (almost super feminine) attire of the day adopted to counter the media and social aspersions that they were unwomanly, unnatural and men-hating. No wonder they pushed the image of the mother and child so much. In white robes and candles, there’s a hint of the Suffragette love of pageant and parade, of image, putting on a show — but not as much as there could be. By contrast, it is used to show Sylvia as an outsider (literally) and how much she abhors blood and violence. The sense of Wilding Davison’s martyrdom for the cause is downplayed; her body lifted up like a sacrifice or religious emblem a bit rushed and muddled.

On the other hand, there is sisterhood, and Emmeline and Christobel united at the expense of Sylvia, who increasingly becomes seen as a Socialist embarrassment to the family. Adela is also rehabilitated, though strangely banished with a one way ticket to Australia. Although she does marry and live a full life. Hinted at by Christobel becoming a Conservative MP, although never explored, is her suggestion of moral purity for men, which becomes incredibly racist at time and plunges into Eugenics. (Although the original idea started as non-racist one — stopping unfaithful husbands giving their unsuspecting wives STDs). Instead we see a lengthy battle between Christobel, Sylvia and Emmeline for the soul of the WSPU and their family — with their sidelined (and remaining surviving brother) Harry dying young, sadly. (He has to battle to even get his own spotlight).

Uncomfortably in a pro-women and pro-sisterhood production, we are asked to cheer for the romance between Keir Hardie and Sylvia. Only this is at the expense of another woman — his wife (and children). But that’s ok — cos she’s a suffragette and he’s an ally. As weird as Keir Hardie’s accent (it’s a bit all over the place- is it meant to be Edinburgh Scottish?) it’s true love, so because love is love — this doesn’t matter. The pain that he’s causing his wife and family are disregarded. Given that he’s almost a substitute father figure, somewhat confused too. Disappointingly (and again with huge contrast to other Prince productions) the musical doesn’t even try to call out the ethics of this — or get the maligned wife’s point of view. Whilst Hardie is a great support, enabler (and her mother’s friend), he and Sylvia are apparently betraying his wife with total disregard — can we trust them as narrators? Much as I love Hardie’s jaunty Labour red hipster scarf, I have issues here.

What wrankles is that in a musical that is so focused on promoting women’s voices — only Sylvia is allowed a voice, not Mrs Hardie.

More worryingly there’s a lot of things being portrayed on stage as ‘truth’, when infact they are more ‘inspired by’… Christobel is shown as out and proud with a Kenney sister — but we don’t know this for sure. Unlike Ethel Smyth, we have no idea. Our culture is all about sexual identity now, in a way that their time wasn’t — women could and did share a bed just for sleeping in and express intense emotions to each other without sexual connotations. Ideas which we can’t understand now. The past is a different country and we don’t really go there, putting our stuff onto it instead. It’s a shame that rather than conjecturing about Christobel in this way, Ethel Smyth’s true declarations weren’t used instead, and other known Suffragettes. It is also worth noting, that following cultural mores of the time, this was weaponised against the Suffragettes along with ‘ugly’, ‘man-hating’ etc.

Better is the second half — we get Silvio (Sylvia can never remember his name and uses his as a writing desk). But he charms her, overcomes her cultural prejudices — they set up home together and have a son — which gets her disowned by her family for scandalous living. Never explored, but which occurred to me at the time — this lifestyle is something only rich women could afford the luxury of doing. Working class women (unless supported by their community) would face huge amounts of stigma, shame and financial loss, especially from middle class employers.

I loved the portrayal of working class women (and men) fighting for their rights, creating free newspapers and promotional posters. Here the production comes alive — splashes of red, the free press, the women going to see Winston Churchill to explain their need for the vote and other things beside — child care, working hours, a proper wage, respect, women’s work and working conditions, maternal care. I wish though that we’d heard more of the women’s own words from their petition — tho well done, it felt a bit cod Eliza Doolittle at times. Especially as this is such a London story at this moment and such an immense moment — women speaking up in a setting where they would have felt completely out of place, stressing their work ethic and their respectability, but also their hopes for more.

Nor does the production embrace the many other politicians of the time — lady killer David Lloyd George, very upright Asquith, so many others. It is determined to demonise Churchill and Churchill alone as the enemy, opposer and hater of the women — whereas he wasn’t the worst and it was a much wider establishment issue. Even women disliked the Suffragettes at the time.

More well done are the Manchester men singing down the protesting women; the based on truth scientist who sings about women being formed differently, and just how many years it took for women to get any kind of enfranchisement. DJ Walde is also as excellent as ever, with Josh Cohen. Sharon Rose owns the stage as Sylvia, giving Beverley Knight a run for her money. Verity Blyth is wonderful as the secret Suffragette supporting Mrs Churchill. Lord Curzon and Lord Cromer are presented like a musical hall double act.

Whilst sounding like I hated this production, it isn’t true. Beverley Knight is amazing and belts away — although her Emmeline Pankhurst is somewhat one dimensional — harsh and controlling throughout with the fight left to the younger women. Whilst diverse casting, the musical does ignore the actual presence of women from around the Empire who participated in WSPU marches and dramatic tableaux. With a mud coloured set (perhaps designed to invoke the old photographs and press), we lose the sense of how much the Suffragettes knew not only the power of the press, but the power of a good ‘glow up’ and strategic ‘selfie’. As ever the music and songs are amazing (and well delivered) (and the dancing is fantastic, flowing smoothly through the production) — but should we really lose our collective audience mind and be invited to whoop and cheer when the newly militant Suffragettes brandish hammers, lead piping, etc. They’re embarking on an inland terrorist campaign… Also deeply disturbing was the TNT style bomb (very Warner Bros) which blew up and scattered policemen’s corpses. In reality the bomb placed at Lloyd George’s country home and went off, injuring no-one. Though it could have injured workmen (unenfranchised working class men)… In celebrating these ‘empowered’ women — are they really empowered? Again I surprised myself, I was all about the Suffragettes in my teenage years and now find myself appalled by the whooping of a violent campaign

Not only defund the police, but blow them up. Is this really what we want to be whooping for as a society? Though it does get the capes and truncheons right — it was more of a paramilitary style then. Am I really meant to righteously holla with killing at any cost? What value life? (Though the smashing glass animations are thrilling). We don’t really get a sense of the damage — attack on property, people, infrastructure, public buildings, political spaces, sexy lady paintings; the whole system which stated that women were property alone and irrational.

Indeed it is this tension with the violence of the campaign which turns Sylvia away — and her determination to include everyone in enfranchisement — even working class men! The tensions, in fighting and family dynamics were captured well, albeit that we did not get the wider scope of campaigns coming through such as supporting women in their families, as mothers, in their education, in accessing and training for the professions — and all of the jauntily memorable slogans are gone — no Deeds Not Words here.

I’m shocked to say it — but I’ve come away feeling sorry for Winston Churchill. More so, I think this musical lacks the nuance and empathy of previous Prince productions and presents a very limited view of history. As hinted at in the splintering and faction forming (and the debates and ideas) it was more complex and more tangled. We see big personalities, but not the big history behind it all.



Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....