Times caption: Whitney White as Christabel Pankhurst and Beverley Knight as Emmeline Pankhust in the Old Vic show
A piece in yesterday’s Times by David Sanderson, Arts Correspondent:
The road to female suffrage wasn’t easy and the same has proved true of efforts a century later to tell the story on stage.
Sylvia, a show at the Old Vic mixing dance, hip-hop, soul and funk to shed light on the life of Sylvia Pankhurst and the suffragettes, will not now “cross the finishing line”, the theatre’s artistic director, Matthew Warchus, has said.
The musical, which closes on Saturday, will remain at the preview stage, rather than becoming a finished production, after being hit by waves of illness and a lack of time.
Warchus said that the show, part-funded by the 14-18 NOW centenary First World War art project, was too much of a sprint. It has been retitled a “work in progress”, with audiences on Monday and last night warned that they would be seeing an “enhanced concert-style version, performing songs with excerpts of choreography”.
The show, awarded two stars yesterday by Ann Treneman, The Times’s theatre critic, has been previewing for two weeks.
Warchus said that a determination to be “part of the political cultural conversation” to mark the anniversary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave some women the vote, had not left enough time to create a finished work.
The theatre, which does not receive public subsidy, has being charging lower preview prices for the run and has said that it will offer refunds for the two nights which Izuka Hoyle, who plays Emily Davison, missed because of laryngitis.
The project has left another question mark over 14-18 NOW, which was launched in 2013 to “look afresh” at the events of the Great War. It has since spent about £50 million of public money on various art commissions. Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, which it belatedly supported, has been alone among its endeavours in receiving widespread appreciation.
Warchus, who has run the Old Vic to great acclaim since succeeding Kevin Spacey in 2015, said that Sylvia had fallen victim to “unusual circumstances amplified by bad luck”.
During its first open dress rehearsal at the start of this month Genesis Lynea, who was playing Sylvia Pank- hurst, collapsed on stage and was taken to hospital. She managed to come back but then had to go to hospital again.
Her replacement has been Maria Omakinwa, who had been playing another character, Ada, in the musical, created by Zoo Nation: The Kate Prince Company.
Warchus said that there had been no option but to resort to a slimmed-down version. Some audience members complained, with one tweeting: “I went home. Zoo Nation is a dance company. I wanted to see the dance and the staging and experience a piece of theatre.” Warchus defended the theatre’s response, saying that those of the audience that remained had been “dancing and cheering”.
He said that given that two “visionary” women, Emma Cons and Lilian Baylis, had established the theatre, he had been determined that it would “contribute culturally” to the centenary of the Representation of the People Act.
“We just don’t have the option in the schedule this time to get beyond a bumpy preview period,” he said, adding that, given its tight finances, there “is no way the Old Vic can afford to go dark . . . leaving a gap in the schedule is just not an option. We are more used to Crossrail announcing that they are a year behind than we are at a show not crossing the finishing line,” he said.
• Alan Ayckbourn’s 1981 play Way Upstream was set aboard a cabin cruiser on an English river. First performed in Yorkshire, when it was brought to the National Theatre, the boat was held in a 6,000-gallon tank of water. The tank split, the water cascaded through the stage machinery, previews were cancelled and on the opening night a critic turned up in wellies.
• In 1991 Adrian Noble put on Henry IV parts I and II for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford. However for the first week there was no scenery as the workshops frantically tried to complete its construction.
• Rotating stages have caused a number of performances to come a cropper. Last year a power surge at the Bridge Theatre in central London caused its revolving set to stop. The performance of Young Marx, starring Rory Kinnear, never made it past the interval.
• In 2013 the roof of the West End’s historic Apollo Theatre collapsed midway through a packed performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time, injuring 88 people. The show had been taking £190,000 a week at the box office, with its closure costing the producers, the National Theatre, millions.
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