REVIEW: Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World (Theatre Royal Stratford East)

Kate Pankhurst’s bestselling picture book Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World is filled with fascinating facts about some of the amazing women who have changed the course of history. From adventurer Amelia Earhart to activist Rosa Parks, the book is jam-packed with information to inspire and empower young girls. And it’s now been adapted into a musical by a creative team of wonderful women. The production is currently on tour ahead of a summer stint at the Edinburgh Fringe, soMummy and the munchkins were delighted to be invited to review it at Theatre Royal Stratford East last weekend. (Mummy wore her ‘Me and the Sky’ Come From Away t-shirt for the occasion, in a nod to the fantastically great Beverley Bass and all the women who have played her!)

Adapted by playwright Chris Bush, Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World brilliantly weaves together the stories of 12 different historical women into one cohesive narrative (no mean feat given that it spans a timeline from 1805 to present day and features women from disparate fields including art, science, sport and military intelligence). The story centres around schoolgirl, Jade (Kudzai Mangombe) who’s been having a tough time of it lately. With her parents going through a divorce, Jade feels powerless, disenfranchised and invisible. And lost – quite literally – she’s somehow got separated from her class during a school trip to a museum and now even her teacher seems to have forgotten her. But when she stumbles into the Gallery of Greatness, Jade finds herself getting one hell of a pep talk from some of history’s most inspirational women.

Jade meets Emmeline Pankhurst. Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography.

Even the best educated feminist might find themselves learning something new as Jade is introduced not just to well known figures such as Jane Austen (Christina Modestou) but also women that you are unlikely to have studied in school, including Native American explorer Sacagawea (Jade Kennedy). By sharing their stories, the fantastically great women that Jade meets help her to find her confidence and start thinking about the mark she wants to make on the world. The message of the show is incredibly inspiring, with a real focus on how everyone can make a difference in their own way, regardless of age, gender and background.

With a catchy pop score by Miranda Cooper and Jennifer Decilveo, and an all-female on stage band (Audra Cramer, Rhiannon Hopkins and Chloe Rianna), it’s hard to escape comparisons with another historical musical featuring a royally badass girl band. But this one is very much aimed at princesses rather than queens; a lesson in girl power throughout the ages without any of the gory or raunchy bits that make SIX unsuitable for singing in a primary school playground. And although Fantastically Great Women may be aimed at a family audience, that does not mean that it’s just a show for children. As the programme makes clear, this is a show for everyone, regardless of age, gender or circumstance.

Frida Kahlo’s World of Colour. Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography

It’s a great fun, high energy musical with some really memorable music. Quaver loved the title number ‘Fantastically Great’ while Crotchet’s favourite was ‘Deeds Not Words’, rapped by Emmeline Pankhurst (Kirstie Skivington) who sports a marvellously modern, military inspired outfit in traditional suffragette colours. (A big shout out here to Joanna Scotcher’s fabulous set and costume design!) Mummy very much enjoyed Frida Kahlo’s big number ‘A World of Colour’ (which features another brilliant costume as well as some spectacular drumming) and the hilarious ‘Mary, Mary and Marie’ performed by the trio of Mary Anning (Christina Modestou), Mary Seacole (Renée Lamb) and Marie Curie (Jade Kennedy) plus the mysterious Agent Fifi (Kirstie Skivington). With the studio cast recording having been released this week, the munchkins now have a new musical to beg their teachers to play in the classroom and we’re sure that it will soon become a very popular choice in their school. We also suspect that their teachers will very much enjoy the opening number ‘Quiet Children*’!

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World is an inspiring, empowering and uplifting musical which is great for all ages but perfect for families with primary age children (recommended for ages 7+ but it’s engaging enough for younger children and there’s nothing unsuitable in it). Fittingly, it would also make a fantastic school trip. Running at around 75 minutes without an interval, the show whizzes by in a blur of music, colour and fun. Things become more sombre towards the end when Jade meets Anne Frank and although this poignant moment relies quite heavily on subtext, the children of the audience will be left in no doubt that one little girl can leave a huge mark on the world.

Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World plays at Theatre Royal Stratford East from 15 June to 17 July 2022. We received complimentary press tickets to the evening performance on Saturday 18 June.

*Written by Miranda Cooper and Nick Coler.