The musical based on Kate Pankhurst's picture book is an unmistakably feminist and jubilant yassification of historical figures.

By: Jun. 23, 2022
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Review: FANTASTICALLY GREAT WOMEN WHO CHANGED THE WORLD, Theatre Royal Stratford East Chris Bush is having a marvellous year. The writer has been populating theatres across England steadily for months, and now rings in a double-press night on the same day. While her ambitious Rock/Paper/Scissors (three individual but related plays simultaneously playing on three different stages) is premiering in Sheffield, Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World is opening in London at Theatre Royal Stratford East.

The musical is based on a picture book by Kate Pankhurst, descendant of the Emmeline Pankhurst, the political activist and leader of the suffrage movement in Great Britain whom we women largely owe our right to vote. Published in 2016, it collects historically accurate accounts of, you guessed it, women who made a difference in society, science, and art.

From Amelia Earhart and Anne Frank to Rosa Parks and Pankhurst's relative herself, it's a celebration of the notable contributions of women. The show is a brilliant adaptation of its spirit. It's an unmistakably feminist and jubilant yassification of historical figures and features a creative team of fantastically great artists.

Bush writes the lyrics alongside Miranda Cooper (her hits span Girls Aloud, Sugababes, Kylie Minogue and more), and Cooper also curates the music with Jennifer Decilveo (the multi-award winning songwriter behind the likes of Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Anne-Marie, we could go on). Olivier Award-nominated Amy Hodge directs and a 98%-female village contributes to the exhilariating project.

At the centre of the story is Jade (Kudza Mangombe), a quiet and forgettable schoolgirl who loses her classmates during a visit at the museum. By pure chance and a deep desire for rebellion, she stumbles into the work-in-progress Gallery of Greatness. There, she meets the aforementioned "fantastically great women", who essentially become her life-coaches for 85 minutes without an interval and drill self-confidence into her.

Through narrative-led bona fide pop bangers we learn of how Sacagawea (Kennedy) saved Lewis and Clark, Mary Anning (Modestou) and Marie Curie (Kennedy again) fought for their discoveries, Parks (Lamb) was more afraid things wouldn't change than of taking a stand against injustice, and other incredible, evergreen stories from the past.

Mangombe is joined by four actors of astonishing talent and versatility. Renée Lamb, Christina Modestou (both of Six fame), Jade Kennedy, and Kirstie Skivington become everyone Jade interacts with. Modern suffragettes and a soldierlike Emmeline Pankhurst (Skivington) dressed in purple camo and glittery epaulettes; a vibrant Frida Kahlo (Kennedy) who urges the girl to find joy before she seeks expertise or fame; a rule-abiding Jane Austen (Modestou) are only a few of the colourful characters.

Lamb plays a handful of strong-willed, independent thinkers. Her Earhart and Mary Seacole combine irony with hard-hitting truth, but she crowns her performance with Rosa Parks as a no-nonsense, passionate, and empathetic woman who opens Jade's eyes to what she can feasibly do to "change the world".

While the premise wears thin here and there, it's ultimately effective. It introduces - or further acquaints - groundbreaking people who advanced science, made revolutionary discoveries, and - more than anything - dreamt big and got us where we are now. It's an inspiring show that will stir and inspire young and old.

Hodge's direction is magnetic. She utilises Joanna Scotcher's set to install a make-believe dynamic between Jade and the scientists, artists, and activists that's complemented by Dannielle 'Rhimes' Lecointe's electrifying choreography. A three-piece band perch high upon wooden shipping crates that conceal entrances and exits.

The original doodly look of Pankhurst's book is translated onto the stage with bright splashes of colour and neon lights (Zoe Spurr). The line-up wear contemporary outfits alongside idealised period clothing, creating a visually engaging relatability with the modern world (which might be of help to younger audiences).

Humour marries truly tear-jerking moments in a deeply moving and enthralling production. It's as great an initiation to theatre for the younger generations as it is a joyous night out for musicals aficionados. Mostly, it will make you realise that "There is no such thing as an ordinary woman".

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World runs at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 7 July and then goes on tour.

Photo Credit: Pamela Raith


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