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  • Writer's pictureRichard Chambers

Sylvia The Musical - Brilliant, but a tad unfair to Churchill

Let me start by saying that the new London musicial "Sylvia" that premiered at the Old Vic Theatre on the 27th January 2023 is superb.

I attended the opening night, and was thrilled to be there and part of the sold out audience.

It's a visual treat with stunning choreography and a Hamilton worthy musical score that powerfully charts the female Suffragette movement and it's key players, the Pankhurst family.

The cast were truly brilliant, with many of the actors switching between multiple characters.

I was of course blown away by my favourite singer the incredible Beverley Knight as Emmeline Pankhurst, and Sharon Rose who was brilliant in the title role as Sylvia.

However, it is clear from the start who the writers wanted as their pantomine villain. The character that actually gets hissed and booed at the start of act two by the audience, Winston Churchill.

(Credit to the actor playing him, Jay Perry, he nailed the brief!)

It was clear to me as someone who actually studies the life of Churchill, and wants to know the truth (good and bad) that the writers had already made up their minds about Churchill and the man they wish to present.

Perhaps a cursory bit of historic research turned up that Churchill was initially resistant to the Suffragette movement, so they pen him as the arch villain, a woman hating bully who takes delight in denying women power, and smiles on as they are beaten, arrested and repressed.

Sadly distoring and exaggerating the facts as to why he was resistant and the historic context behind it.

Unfortunately the writers don't seem to care about accuracy, as you see a scene in 1906 depicting Churchill courting and getting married to Clementine, when in fact they didn't meet and Marry until 1908. (Except an awkward brief intro in 1904) There is also the skimming over of the fact that his attraction to Clemmie was not just her beauty, but her incredible intellect and interest in politics!

Curiously the audience are led to believe that Churchill was already in a position of high power by 1904-1906 and some how able to dictate policy, when in fact he was a junior Minister at this stage, but hey, don't let the truth get in the way of a good story, when you want to force a narrative.

There was also a hugely powerful scene in the show depicting "Black Friday" in November 1910 where the Suffragettes were being beaten by the police as Churchill looks menacingly down from a high point on the stage, deliberately giving the audience the impression that he was revelling in, and enjoying the violence which is simply untrue, and unfair.

In truth when Churchill found out about the details of what happened that day he wrote to the Commisioner of police Sir Edward Henry.

“my strongly expressed wishes…were not observed by the police on Friday last, with the result that very regrettable scenes occurred

"Very regrettable scenes" hardly a man that was watching and enjoying seeing women being beaten.

Also during various parts of the show the writers have led us to believe that Churchill was somehow a Judge and able to pass sentence on people and throw them in jail for as long as he liked, when in reality he intervened on many occasions to have many of the arrested Women released. Especially in the case of "Black Friday" once he realised that rather than being the perpertrators of terrible crimes, they were the victims of police brutality.

Yes, in the show eventually Winston Churchill is brought round to the cause of Votes for Women by his beautiful Wife Clemmie (played by Verity Blyth who shines) and his overbearing Mother Jennie (played hilariously by Jade Hackett)

And of course the audience cheer as the villain Churchill is redeemed.

I have no problem whatsoever with studying our historic heroes and examining some of their human flaws, failings and the things that should rightly be criticised. But at least have the decency to do your homework properly and highlight the faults accurately. This play will no doubt be seen by a younger generation who will see the depiction of Churchill and accept it as fact.

Thanks to Churchill and the things he went on to fight to protect, the writers have the freedom of free speech and to interpret history in this way for our entertainment.

Those that study his life realise that just like all of us, he was flawed, but just as we are changing with an ever evolving world, and learning from our mistakes, Churchill also did the same throughout his life. And there is nothing in the Husband, Father, Friend, Statesman that says "Women Hater" about Churchill, in fact it's the opposite.

To understand the background to some of his earlier views on female suffrage and how they evolved especially after WW1, I urge the reader to seek out biographies by Andrew Roberts such as "Walking with Destiny" or to conduct your own research and treat the show 'Sylvia' as one might an episode of The Crown or The Tudors.

In this modern social media world the famous quote below seems very apt. And while criticism and examination of our past is essential, let's criticise fairly.

'A lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on.’

**This quote has been attributed to Twain, Churchill, Wilde, and Roman Scholars**

And let me me be clear, I loved this show!

It has a wonderful cast and immaculate choreography, it was a joy to watch. I was one of the first to rise in the standing ovation, but it would have been sublime for me if they had just dug a little deeper into the realities of Churchill.


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