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Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World

A show called Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World could, if it wanted to, go on all night, and one must resist the temptation to indulge in whataboutery: Dame Sarah Gilbert, Teresa Lambe OBE and Catherine Green OBE were part of the Oxford University team who developed the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, but aren’t portrayed in this production. Neither is Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), the prison reformer and philanthropist. Seventy-five per cent of the workforce at Bletchley Park during the Second World War were women, working around the clock. And so on.

Renee Lamb as Mary Seacole, Pamela Raith Photography.
Renee Lamb as Mary Seacole, Pamela Raith Photography.

But this family-friendly production – coarse language is nowhere to be found in this show – does its job in introducing young audiences to some of the female figures in history who have made a significant impact. One can imagine, for example, in its grouping together of Mary Seacole (1805-1881) (Renée Lamb), Mary Anning (1799-1847) (Christina Modestou) and Marie Curie (1867-1934) (Jade Kennedy), curious minds wanting to find out at a later point how many other ‘fantastically great’ Marys and Maries there were: St Mary the Virgin, Marie Stopes, Mary Queen of Scots, and so on. Of course, Anning died before Curie was born, but this sort of detail is immaterial as far as this show goes: they’re all friends in the afterlife.

The audience’s appetite is sufficiently whetted through a mixture of spoken dialogue and songs (as they are called in the programme, rather than musical numbers). There’s a level of whimsicality to proceedings, with Jade (Kudzai Mangombe), a schoolgirl who gets lost in a museum with signage (don’t ask, just go with the flow) meeting, as it were, the aviator Amelia Earhart (1897-1939) (also Lamb) and then setting out to fly into outer space to get away from her obstinate parents. At the heart of Jade’s own narrative is the feeling of being unloved and unwanted, with her opinions disregarded. The historical figures have various ways of telling her that their own life experiences weren’t exactly dissimilar, but also with words and songs of encouragement.

Perhaps Rosa Parks (1913-2005) (also Lamb) said it best, claiming hers was just one of many people’s roles in the civil rights movement – one’s contributions to making the world a better place should be seen as part of a bigger picture. It brought to mind an Armed Forces television recruitment advertisement from some years ago, which presented a logistical challenge before telling would-be soldiers that if they were to ask, ‘How do I resolve this?’ they are asking the wrong question. Rather, “How do we resolve this?” is the first step. Jade is already there, calling on the assistance of everyone she comes across in the museum, including Jane Austen (1775-1817) (also Modestou) and the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) (also Kennedy).

A show of this nature must, in effect, satisfy two audiences: the children for whom the stickers and activity pages in the programme are (presumably) intended, and their parents and indeed any other adults who want to take a punt on seeing the show. The grown-ups at the performance I attended seemed sufficiently entertained – the songs are as colourful as the costumes (that is, very). The narrative ultimately goes awry, however: it is all very well trying to inspire Jade to stand up for what she believes in, but this is a central character that, being eleven years old, is still trying to work out what she believes in!

The sprightly choreography (Dannielle ‘Rhimes’ Lecointe) is so energetic it occasionally leaves the actors still catching their breath while delivering the next piece of spoken dialogue. The irony of Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) (Kirstie Skivington) performing a song called ‘Deeds Not Words’ that contains a lot of the latter and none of the former wasn’t lost on me. This isn’t a show that seeks to bash men, or indeed anyone, but rather to motivate women, or indeed anyone. The message of inclusion and affirmation is reassuring in a world that still has much room for improvement.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

The inspiring girl power musical is coming to Theatre Royal Stratford East from 15th June – 17th July as part of a UK tour. Based on the popular books by Suffragette descendant Kate Pankhurst, incredible women from history are brought to life on stage – from Rosa Parks to Marie Curie to Frida Kahlo and more – when inquisitive heroine Jade discovers the Gallery of Greatness on a school trip. With a West End cast including former SIX queens Renée Lamb and Christina Modestou, the musical appeals to the whole family with its catchy pop soundtrack from Miranda Cooper and Jennifer Decilveo, the songwriters behind Kylie Minogue, Girls Aloud, Sugababes, Miley Cyrus and Ben Platt.

Adapted by Chris Bush
Lyrics Chris Bush, Miranda Cooper
Music Miranda Cooper and Jennifer Decilveo
Orchestrations and Music Production Miranda Cooper and Jennifer Decilveo
Director Amy Hodge
Set and Costume Designer Joanna Scotcher
Choreographer Dannielle Lecointe
Lighting Designer Zoe Spurr
Sound Designer Carolyn Downing
Co-Sound Designer Rob Bettle
Casting Rosie Pearson of Pearson Casting
Live Arrangements Jen Green
Producer and General Management Kenny Wax Family Entertainment

Sacagawea/Frida Kahlo/Marie Curie Jade Kennedy
Amelia Earhart/Rosa Parks/Mary Seacole Renée Lamb
Gertrude Ederle/Jane Austen/Mary Anning Christina Modestou
Emmeline Pankhurst/Agent Fifi/Miss Johnson Kirstie Skivington
Jade Kudzai Mangombe
Swing Elise Zavou
Swing Clarice Julianda

Musical Director/Keys Audra Cramer
Assistant Musical Director/Percussion/2nd Keys – Original Production Nicola T. Chang
Assistant Musical Director/Percussion/2nd Keys – Current Production Rhiannon Hopkins
Drums Chloe Rianna

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World

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