Get to Know Christabel Pankhurst: An Interview with Ellena Vincent of ‘Sylvia’

Words by Constance Drugeot

Picture: @manuelharlanphotography

Note: we sat down with Ellena Vincent a week before the Olivier Awards – congratulations to the entire company of ‘Sylvia‘ on their win and performance!

First of all, how are you doing?  

I’m good, thank you! It’s our last day off for the next two weeks because next Sunday is the Oliviers, which is exciting! So today is just a chill day. 

I’ll be rooting for you on the Oliviers!

Thanks! There are tough categories, I think Standing at the Sky’s Edge is a favourite but we’re just happy to be nominated, to be honest. And I’ve never been to the Oliviers so I’m buzzing! It should be a good day. 

For sure, and Sylvia has all the chances! The show has been open for a few months now, how has it been to be a part of it?

It’s been incredible! I’m from Manchester originally, and the Pankhursts were born not far from where I live. I was born in Sale and they’re from Old Trafford so I grew up knowing the Pankhursts, even though we don’t really talk about them in school. If we do, it’s mainly about Emmeline Pankhurst. So, when I first heard this was going to be a show, I was immediately interested, especially with the hip-hop element and the way the story is being told. I knew I had to be a part of this! It’s been an amazing process. And being able to do it in my own accent means a lot! 

The fact that it’s a female-central story with a female protagonist and a mostly female cast and creatives has been incredible. I’ve almost never worked with such a strong ensemble, both on and off stage. It’s an amazing group of people. It’s the sort of show that doesn’t work if you don’t have a strong connection with everyone. It’s really an ensemble piece. There’s a real sense of sisterhood on stage throughout the show which means a lot. On the whole, it’s been an amazing experience and I can’t believe we only have two weeks left! 

We’re not talking about that…!

I know, I’m in denial about that actually (laughs). I’m really going to miss the show, for sure. 

Not only is it a great female-led show but it’s also such an important history lesson! 

This is such a crucial part of history! It’s wild actually that it’s not covered that much in schools… You do a little bit of the suffragettes in primary schools but not really in secondary school unless you take some A-levels education. So, there are a lot of people who come and watch the show that know very little about the suffragettes and the suffragist movement. And no one really knows about Sylvia at all… They mostly know about Emmeline Pankhurst, being the matriarch of the family and the leader of the time. Not much is known about my character Christabel either. So it’s so nice that people can come to see the show and learn more about them. They’re keen to learn more! We’ve also had a lot of schools come in which is really nice. Seeing people learning as well as enjoying. 

The show explores the complicated relationships of the Pankhurst family as well! 

Yes, the show is about the family as a whole, that’s why it’s so interesting! Most people don’t know the inner workings of the family. They know about the political side but not their bonds or, rather, bond-breaking. So it’s been nice to portray it. And Christabel is an interesting one as well. It’s not so much that she was in the middle because she obviously really did stand by her mother’s values. They were very aligned on what was the best they could get. Which is very different from Sylvia’s views. They couldn’t really take on all the class issues that came with trying to get the vote for them. 

At the same time, Christabel was always able to separate politics and family. Whereas for Emmeline, everything was so intertwined which is why, in the end, she completely cuts off Sylvia. I think Christabel saw the bigger picture. She was still able to see her sisters as her sisters even though their politics couldn’t align. It’s an interesting dynamic to portray! 

There’s a real sense of sisterhood on stage throughout the show which means a lot.

We kind of see it through the letters the siblings send to each other in the show! 

Exactly! When we started the show, we learned that in the end, all the siblings ended up in different parts of the world. Sylvia ended up in Ethiopia, Adela in Australia and Christabel moved to the States. She passed away in California and it was our understanding that none of them spoke again, except Christabel and her mother. But Dr Helen Pankhurst – Sylvia’s great-granddaughter – came to watch the show and she mentioned that they found correspondences between Christabel and Sylvia after they both moved away. They had started writing to each other again and even though they still had very different opinions, the sisterly bond was still there. Siblings’ bonds will always be different from a mother-daughter bond and it’s so lovely that it remained until the end of their lives. It was a nice thing to find out and it’s so amazing we can portray it in the show with the ‘Hey Sis’ songs. It delves a bit more into their sibling relationships. I’m glad we can give the audience a bit more insight as well. 


What was your process for getting into the character?

It was a lot of research. I read a book called ‘The Pankhursts’ by Martin Pugh and I went to the Pankhurst museum in Manchester. I did a lot of online research as well. Christabel is fascinating. She was so militant in her actions, she really felt that the way to get things done was action, not words. Which is why Sylvia and her couldn’t see eye to eye. She was nicknamed ‘Queen of the Mob’, leading sometimes violent riots. She was even exiled to France. She was at the forefront of the movement and she didn’t shy away from violence, but only as a means to an end. She was all about strategy and it was all well thought through. She was a proper badass, Christabel! The ultimate feminist really. She led the anti-men portion of the WSPU as well. 

She was a proper badass, Christabel! The ultimate feminist really.

They all were so interesting! I think with a mother like Emmeline, they were all going to be outspoken. This is basically how she raised them. Even Sylvia, she’s her mother’s daughter. She taught them to speak out about what really mattered to them. Christabel was no different. She really stood strongly for what she believed in and fought for it until the end. They are all inspirational women. 

The show is so inspirational but also so relatable and relevant today… 

Yes, people relate to the family relationships in the show, but also the politics. There are so many parallels that people relate to even today. We talked a lot about that during the rehearsals, especially about the end of Act 1. It resonates so strongly with people because it makes you realise how far we’ve come and how fortunate we are now, but at the same time, it makes you realise that we still have a lot to fight for. It sometimes does feel like one step forward, two steps back… The fight is definitely not over and it’s a reminder that there is still so much to fight for. The show rings true with a lot of people. Fighting for people’s rights is a universal thing whether it is LGBTQIA+, black rights, female rights… The show can translate a lot into so many more issues that we’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis. 

The fight is definitely not over and it’s a reminder that there is still so much to fight for.

Exactly! Its message is so important, and more people should see it! 

Let’s hope for a transfer but it’s already incredible to know that even for a short time, it’s been on. It had such an important effect – it’s always special to have a show resonate so much with people in such a short time. I would love the opportunity for it to extend or have another life so we can reach more people, but we’ll see… I’m putting it out there now! Speaking it into existence (laughs).


We need a cast recording as well! 

We do, honestly! We are waiting to hear about that. 

Going back on your character, Christabel, what do you like most about playing her?  

She speaks her mind and she’s very unfiltered. She’s so intelligent, she had a law degree, even though she wasn’t allowed to practise law. And I just love that. She’s so interesting to play. She’s also very complicated. She has this hard exterior because she had to. Being a woman at that time, she couldn’t but rebel against the laws of the times. She was tough because she had to be. But she was also soft and wanted to be loved. And she really loved her siblings and her mum. I love the layers to her. She’s not just black and white. She loved fiercely. She was very much an all-or-nothing kind of woman, which I love. 

She was definitely a born leader, which is why I love playing her. She was someone who was born to be followed. So much of the movement was about getting people behind and getting people as passionate as you are. This is what the Pankhursts were doing. Her public speaking was unmatched. I get terrified about public speaking – acting on stage as a character, I love it, but if I have to stand up in front of people like myself, I get tongue-tied (laughs). The Pankhursts were incredible public speakers and Christabel was really good at doing that. She got so many people to believe her and follow her. Annie Kenney idolised her. And a lot of the other suffragettes too. That’s really impressive! 

The Pankhursts were incredible public speakers and Christabel was really good at doing that. She got so many people to believe her and follow her.

Just playing a character on stage is impressive to me so I can’t even imagine! Do you still get nervous before going on stage? 

Less and less! I mean, opening night is always nerve-wracking. Performing in theatre is so much about you as an actor but also about the audience. It’s really a two-way street and at first, you’re doing it in the rehearsal room and it’s just for you. So opening night is always scary as you are sharing the performance with people for the first time. Performing is about sharing. I always get nervous on the first night because we don’t know how the audience is going to respond to the story and the show. The thing I get most nervous about is: will they be with us? Cause at the end of the day, the show is not just ours anymore and that’s the point. But that’s the nerves and as time goes on, it turns into excitement! You’re just so excited to share it with new audiences. The challenge is to keep it fresh for yourself and for your character. The Christabel that I found in rehearsals is so different to the one I play now. 

Do you have a favourite moment to play? 

I think the most powerful moment for me, and probably for most of us, is the end of Act 1. It’s a tough one to do every night I must say. But it’s just so powerful. It puts into perspective what these women sacrificed and put on the line to get where we are now. That moment encapsulates the fight and its gravity. All of Act 1 is leading to that moment and it’s the shift towards more actions and militancy. So yeah, I’ll say that’s my favourite moment. 

It’s a really emotional one! One moment I love as well is when Christabel openly says she’s gay and even gets to kiss Annie Kenney, what does it feel like to be able to do that on stage and show this side of the character? 

It’s so important! A lot of suffragettes, we suspect, were in relationships with women. Christabel was so anti-men, she always gravitated more towards women. She just thought men were beneath her and women were her intellectual equals. So, she always sought companionship with women. A lot of women who were in relationships lived together but no one thought anything of it. Whereas two men living together would be badly seen. They weren’t harassed as much in that way. They were able to live fairly peaceful lives. So, a lot of them were in relationships with women, including Christabel with Annie Kenney. There’s nothing specifically saying that she is gay but it is hinted strongly enough that we can assume she was. I think her being so outright with it in the show is amazing and I think this is even more of an indication of how unfiltered she was. She was her true authentic self. The fact that we have that in the show is beautiful. We had a few comments from people about how much it means to see that representation in the show and I think it’s so important to show. I’m glad we get to have that moment.  

I think her being so outright with it in the show is amazing and I think this is even more of an indication of how unfiltered she was. She was her true authentic self.


What would you like people to remember when leaving the show? 

I would like people to remember the fight that was had to get here today. I would like people to not take it for granted. Especially how important voting is. It’s our only way to have a say in political life and in the things that affect us day to day. I think it’s so easy for people to take that for granted because we had it for so long now so it’s important to remember that this is something that we fought for. Also, remember what can happen when you use your voice. There are a lot of different people in society that still don’t have rights the same way that some people do. There is still a lot to fight for and I would like people to remember that. Even if you’re just one voice, that one voice can make a difference. Look at Sylvia! She was one person, cut off from her family, and she made such a difference. Just remember to never take for granted where we are now and how much one person can make a difference. 

Just remember to never take for granted where we are now and how much one person can make a difference.

If you could play any character in the show, who would it be? 

Probably Lady Jennie Churchill! She’s so much fun! I would love it if the actual Jennie Churchill was as fun as Jade portrays her (laughs). In the context of the show, I love her. She’s awesome! And probably just Sylvia, she’s incredible. The journey she goes on in the show is amazing. 

Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring performers? 

The best advice I got given which I take everywhere with me is: only you are you. I know that sounds ridiculous (laughs) but I think so often there is so much emphasis on standing out that it’s really easy to forget that there’s only one like you. Your superpower is just who you are and everything that makes you you. So, it’s important to remember that. Especially in auditions because no one will be able to bring what you bring. And it’s easy to forget so remember that. It’s a life lesson too. But definitely, in performing, I think it’s something to try and hold on to. Just who you are is your superpower and that is enough. Also, discipline is key! 

Just who you are is your superpower and that is enough.


 Many thanks to Ellena for the interview!


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