Directed by Kate Prince, written by Kate Prince with Priya Parmar, Music by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde, 27 January - 8 April 2023 Directed by Kate Prince, written by Kate Prince with Priya Parmar, Music by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde, 27 January - 8 April 2023

Sylvia is a glorious celebration of the suffragette struggle, but it doesn’t do its heroine justice, finds Katherine Connelly

At the end of the first act, audience members were in tears they were so moved by this powerful evocation of the suffragette movement. Act One culminates with the suffragettes, arms linked, confronting horrendous levels of police violence on their demonstration outside parliament on 18 November 1910, later dubbed ‘Black Friday’.

Perhaps the scene makes you cry because all of a sudden this is not about something that happened over a hundred years ago. It looks like the police attack on the vigil for Sarah Everard, inevitably recalling the epidemic of police violence against women – the full, awful extent of which has not yet come to light. That’s what this musical does best: it proclaims the relevance of the suffragette struggle.

‘Feels like revolution’  

It is a wildly ambitious performance told through dance and is mostly sung throughout, fusing soul, funk and hip hop. That’s a brilliant decision, because as the writer and director Kate Prince explains, quoting Alonzo Westbrook, ‘hip hop is the artistic response to oppression’ and ‘Funk feels like revolution to me’.   

It’s a refreshing break from the Mary Poppins trivialisation of the ‘sister suffragette’. In Sylvia, the music reflects Sylvia Pankhurst’s politics by generalising from one experience of oppression to identify common cause with others fighting for emancipation. Here the music reminds us that the suffragettes were among our bravest civil-rights campaigners.   

The depiction of the suffragettes is inspiring, and Beverley Knight is mesmerising as the charismatic Emmeline Pankhurst. It is impossible not to be caught up in the joyous rebellion of the performance. Even better, this is not a simplistic or uncritical depiction of the suffragette movement; the musical tackles the growing elitism of the campaign, its compromises and growing hostility to socialist politics.

At the centre is socialist Sylvia Pankhurst, movingly portrayed by Sharon Rose, as she struggles to balance her familial loyalty to her mother and older sister, the suffragette leaders Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, against her relationship with Labour’s Keir Hardie and her commitment to fight against the particular problems faced by working-class women.

There is a spectacular, agonising, blazing row sung between Emmeline and Sylvia just before the mother expels her daughter from the campaign. All this takes place against a well-researched wider political backdrop. We see the aristocrats organising to defend the old order, the sordid compromises within the Liberal Party, and the threats from vigilantes to the suffragettes menacingly evoked in the song ‘I Know Where You Live’.

Some problems

Any historical adaptation necessitates precisely that – adaptation. Writers and performers must be allowed creative licence to change and rework details in order to better convey the truth of a story in a way that fits the medium, and to tell old stories to new audiences. As such, there are some changes, which despite not being very historically accurate (for example, in reality Sylvia had a far less harmonious relationship with George Lansbury), do nevertheless help to explain general political truths.

But there are other significant alterations that seriously diminish the power and politics of the performance. There is a very strange moment when Sylvia cautions Christabel that her relationship with Annie Kenney might damage her reputation in the press. It is not clear why this implication of homophobia has been inserted; to make Sylvia more ‘complex’?  

It is inexcusable. It isn’t true. And it introduces an element of doubt into the sincerity of Sylvia’s commitment to fight all forms of oppression. It would have been far more interesting and liberatory to stick with the truth: that suffragettes exploited double standards about female sexuality to create a space where lesbian relationships were commonplace. To borrow loosely from Diana Souhami, there’s no suffragette movement without lesbians.

The same was true of Sylvia Pankhurst’s East London Federation of Suffragettes, in which many leading members were lesbians. A strong case can be made for Sylvia’s bisexuality, and the period in which she had her closest relationships with other women is that covered in the play. It is a shame to erase this.


Sylvia’s position on suffragette militancy (civil disobedience) is also misleadingly portrayed, focussing solely on her objection to violence. While it is true that she found violence against human beings abhorrent, and therefore worried about the potential consequences of the arson campaign, Sylvia also appreciated that the suffragettes had critically questioned dominant assumptions about violence.

Through their acts of resistance, the suffragettes exposed the violence of the British state, while also revealing that the same state regarded attacks on inanimate, private property as ‘violence’. What Sylvia Pankhurst objected to was those militant tactics that alienated vast swathes of the public because she believed that only a mass movement could achieve the democratic change they sought. Her position on militancy was political and nuanced, perfectly suited to being articulated through the verbal dexterity of hip hop.

But when her objection is reduced to ‘I don’t want blood on my hands’ or, worse, something so vacuous it could be hash-tagged by any corporation (‘be the change that you want to see’), it falsely individualises and depoliticises her dilemmas. There is no justification for this in a play that contains an almost unbelievable level of political detail at the beginning; it even finds time to mention Churchill’s disagreements with the Conservatives on free trade!

The result is that the drama of the piece drains away after Sylvia’s expulsion when, in founding a working-class suffragette campaign in East London, she took the initiative that makes her such an important figure in socialist feminism. The misleading characterisation of ‘pacifist’ Sylvia means that we don’t see her window smashing or her extensive campaign of hunger-striking (her ultimatum to continue doing so outside of prison is therefore rather confusing when it is mentioned). 

And while Emmeline Pankhurst enjoys a wonderful ‘Suffrajitsu’ number celebrating the jujitsu-ing suffragettes who take on the police (and what a cathartic moment that is!), there is no mention of Sylvia Pankhurst’s People’s Army. In this, dockers and suffragettes drilled in the streets of East London and fought back against the police in battles that saw broken arms, cracked skulls and public meeting halls torn up across the borough. It can’t be maintained that it wouldn’t be dramatically interesting.

Where did the revolution go?

And, most problematically, there is no mention of Sylvia Pankhurst’s support for the Bolshevik Revolution. This leads to a disorientating conclusion with Sylvia and her supporters eagerly campaigning for and then celebrating universal suffrage in 1928.

But by then, the real Sylvia Pankhurst had lost interest in parliamentary politics. And while we see Emmeline Pankhurst become a Conservative Party candidate, we don’t see Sylvia Pankhurst become a communist and one of the most significant supporters of the Bolshevik Revolution in Britain. Why not? The play is about Sylvia, after all. 

There’s one brief, unexplained reference to her making a statement in support of ‘Home Rule in Ireland’, but there’s no reference to her brave support for the Easter Rising against British imperialism in Ireland in 1916. Or her support for Indian independence. Or her opposition to British imperialism in the Middle East. And, strangely surely for a play with a predominantly black cast, no mention of her anti-racism and anti-fascism.

Of course, Pankhurst was an immensely hard-working activist and it would be unfair to expect every cause she espoused to be included in one play. However, the decision to make the story one in which for Sylvia ‘The Victory’ comes with universal suffrage in 1928 provides an unconvincing happy ending for an audience that knows better. So did Sylvia: she finished her history of the suffragette movement with the words: ‘Great is the work which remains to be accomplished!’

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Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.

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