Note that the entire run of this new musical is now being classed as previews, and that the Old Vic are handing out notices stating “it has radically evolved into what promises to be a genuinely thrilling full-blown musical … the performance … is considerably longer and in a more raw state than the creative team and The Old Vic would ever have planned … what we are sharing with you today is a work in progress”.
There has been drama right from the start of the run, when the original first preview was changed into an open dress rehearsal, which was then cancelled part-way through as actress Genesis Lynea (who played Sylvia Pankhurst) was taken ill. Her understudy, Maria Omakinwa, has now taken over the leading role for the remainder of this short run, with a minimum of rehearsal time. Hats off to her.
Running at more than three hours, including interval, this show needs a fair amount of brutal trimming, as well as a focus which perhaps does not include too much stage time for Sylvia’s sister Christabel (Witney White). I was also unconvinced about the relationship portrayed between Sylvia and the Labour Party leader Keir Hardie: this has been rumoured in some accounts but is in no way confirmed. More problematic is the brief reference to a lesbian relationship between Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, again a rumour which the writers should have the nerve to expand upon if they wish to do justice to it.
Kate Prince, who heads the ZooNation company, and who is behind the book and lyrics for this musical, has tried to address the issue of casting black actresses as Emmeline, Christabel, and Sylvia Pankhurst, and black actors as Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George, in the name of diversity. It feels a similar casting quirk that Hamilton has had success with, as is the use of hip hop music and dancing, but I felt that the character of Jennie Churchill, Winston’s mother as a bossy Red Hot Momma (although Jade Hackett blew the roof off the place) was particularly problematic.
There’s just too much going on, and even as someone who knows the story of the struggle for Women’s Suffrage, I felt a little lost and bored at times. The sequence with Emily Wilding Davison and her death at the Epsom Derby is 1913 was lost in confusion, although the song which followed immediately after was a high point. The prison-based depiction of force-feeding was rushed and flawed, and short-changes the issue which went on for more than five years and caused declining health to many women. For a more in-depth treatment of both I can recommend the television serial Shoulder to Shoulder.
Making the opposition, and particularly Churchill, comedic, is also an aspect which doesn’t quite come off. Here you have on one side the measured performances from Omakinwa, from Beverley Knight as Emmeline, and from Carly Bawden as Mrs Churchill (Bawden also portrays Kenney), but then you have the over-broad ones from Delroy Atkinson as Churchill and, to some extent, from John Dagleish as Keir Hardie (with red scarf, tie and long socks proclaiming his political affiliation).
The songs are a mix of funk, soul and hip-hop, and the movement and dance sequences are certainly energetic and inspiring, right from the point that Elliotte Williams-N’Dure’s General Flora Drummond exorts the gathering to “make some noise”. There are just too many songs, and as much as I enjoyed Clementine Churchill’s break-out letter to the newspaper, the letters from the Pankhurst siblings Christabel, Adela and Harry to their imprisoned sister, or Sylvia’s lovestruck memories of seeing Hardie as she grew up, they don’t really push the plot along.
I wanted to see and hear more about Sylvia Pankhurst, who is often hidden in the shadows of her more militant sister and mother, and what drove her to support the working woman’s cause. I wanted to see more following her break from the WSPU.
As a woman from the same town as Annie Kenney, I was disappointed that she was simply there to make eyes as Christabel, when she had so much more to offer to the history of the movement. She was a strong working woman from a mill town who joined with the middle-class ladies: if you don’t want to give her that credit, don’t use the character. The use of Ada to composite several women in the movement would allow one of Sylvia’s friends and mentors to be depicted instead of Kenney.
Ultimately this show is nowhere near ready for a full run, and although Omakinwa is doing a great job, she is still using the book heavily in the second act and reading her lines in key scenes including the aforementioned one of force-feeding and a two-header argument with her mother, which would have great power had she been interacting with Knight fully.
This show does have great potential, and has some excellent moments, but there are too many technical issues present at the moment, and too much going on to really focus on the story or engage with the characters, for this to be a true success. However, I look forward to seeing how it evolves and whether it does have a future.