Review: Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World at Theatre Royal Stratford East

Adapted by Chris Bush from a picture book by Kate Pankhurst (who yes, as it turns out, is distantly related to Emmeline), Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World is an inspirational and educational show for girls and women of all ages. When eleven-year-old Jade (Kudzai Mangombe) gets left behind on a school trip to the museum, she stumbles into the out of bounds “Gallery of Greatness”. There she meets a host of interesting new friends (Jade Kennedy, Renée Lamb, Kirstie Skivington and Christina Modestou, in a variety of roles), among them Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Pacific Ocean; Jane Austen, author of such classics as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility; Marie Curie, who won not one but two Nobel prizes in different scientific fields… and many more, all of whom have a word or two of advice for young Jade. She’s been feeling unseen, unheard and unappreciated, and is convinced she’ll never make a difference to anyone – but all that’s about to change.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

It’s very easy to draw comparisons between this show and the smash hit success that is Six (especially with two alumni – Lamb and Modestou – in the cast). In both shows we get to hear women from history finally speaking their minds through the medium of catchy and, more importantly, sassy pop tunes (music by Miranda Cooper and Jennifer Decilveo, lyrics by Chris Bush and Miranda Cooper). Mary Seacole, Mary Anning, Marie Curie and Agent Fifi (real name Marie Christine Chilver) burst onto stage as a band of superheroes; Amelia Earhart, Sacagawea and Gertrude Ederle have bonded over their love of travel – albeit by different means; and Emmeline Pankhurst has exchanged her traditional long skirts for a sparkly soldier’s uniform.

Male sub-characters are gently mocked through silly voices and comedy moustaches, but ultimately this is a story about women being amazing all by themselves, and not letting anyone – male or female – hold them back. That said, it’s important to note that the show doesn’t try to rewrite history, acknowledging the struggles they each had to go through to achieve their successes, with a poignant contribution from Rosa Parks and Anne Frank bringing that particular message powerfully home.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Ultimately, though the show is primarily aimed at a young audience, it’s hard to imagine any woman of any age leaving the theatre not feeling as Jade does: newly inspired, confident and ready to make her mark on the world – even if she hasn’t figured out how yet. And in support of that, the show’s programme contains not just information about the women featured in the show, but stories of others who are making a difference right now, along with inspirational stickers, activities, and interviews with the women who helped create the show. It’s educational, but more importantly it’s hugely enjoyable – and I’ve no doubt it will help to inspire the next generation of fantastically great women.

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World is at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 17th July, then continues on tour until 29th August.

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