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Sylvia staging at Old Vic is a ‘triumph over adversity’, artistic director Matthew Warchus claims

Old Vic artistic director Matthew Warchus

Old Vic artistic director Matthew Warchus has called the staging of Sylvia a “triumph over adversity”, claiming audience reception to the production has been “more positive” than anything he has staged during his tenure.

Speaking to The Stage in light of problems faced by the show, including cast illness that resulted in press night being cancelled, Warchus said things had “worked out amazingly well, despite the obstacles” faced.

“This feels like a triumph over adversity story to me. We have this wonderful show in its early form on our stage and audience reaction has been more positive than anything I’ve ever had at my time at the Old Vic,” he said.

He added: “We are very pleased with how honest and upfront we have been and how well the company have coped with the bad luck thrown at them. We are really proud of the show and I am proud of how my staff have handled this situation.”

The hip-hop musical was initially meant to open on September 11, but this was pushed back by six days to allow for more work to be done on the production, which was initially commissioned as a dance theatre piece, but evolved into a sung-through musical as development of the show continued.

A preview performance then had to be abandoned after a cast member fell ill, with two subsequent preview performances being cancelled as a result.

Press night performance on September 17 was cancelled [1] after the audience had arrived at the theatre, with the cast later performing a stripped back version of the musical without choreography or sets.

Warchus said he had been faced with a dilemma after it become clear that the piece was a musical, rather than a dance theatre show, and would need more work.

He said musicals normally have longer runs than dance theatre pieces at the theatre, but said he could not extend the scheduled run of Sylvia due to the other productions due to run at the theatre. It was a choice of pulling it completely, and rescheduling it another time, or letting it run as planned.

“We were excited by it – as excited as the vast majority of audiences and critics have been by the material produced. We were excited enough to make the decision to stick with trying to get it on,” he said.

He added the “enthusiasm” of the creative team led him to believe the show could be completed on time, and said that – had cast members not become ill – the theatre would have been able to “present something more recognisable as a complete version of the show” and that its definition would not needed to have been changed to a “work in progress”.

Warchus said, despite the difficulties, the show had “broken even”.

“The outcome has been so good – it’s worked out amazingly well despite the obstacles. Four or five shows cancelled and we still managed not to lose money,” he said.

Warchus added that, in terms of audience response, the show has “probably exceeded some of the most popular shows we have done” and praised the theatre’s staff, the show’s production team and its PR company for handling the situation so well.

“The logistics involved in responding to some of the bad luck has brought out an amazing effort in people that has been really inspiring. It’s a lesson in staying calm, staying strong and following our convictions and this so far has turned out to be a triumph over adversity story from my point of view. I am full of pride for what they have achieved,” he said.