Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World – Review – Sheffield Lyceum
By Clare Jenkins, June 2022
Last month Netflix announced that they were axing Pearl, an animated series involving Meghan Markle and Elton John’s husband David Furnish. The Duchess of Sussex was said to be passionate about the series, centred around a 12-year-old girl learning about female role models through history.
Well, no worries. That’s exactly what Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, based on Kate Pankhurst’s award-winning picture book of the same name, does over the course of 75 minutes. Only with this high energy musical version, there are real women singing and dancing – with great fizz and verve, in Day-Glo bright costumes – not simply cartoon characters.
FGW tells the story of Jade, an almost-12-year-old left behind on a school trip to a museum. Hurt that no-one’s noticed she’s missing, unhappy about her parents’ impending divorce, she wanders into the Gallery of Greatness. There, a series of historical women – as different from each other as a feisty Jane Austen, aviator Amelia Earhart and palaeontologist Mary Anning – burst into her life and into song, exhorting her to be strong, determined and basically badass.
“Bashful and defiant”
As the prepubescent Jade, Kudzai Mangombe is excellent, twisting her hands and body awkwardly, moving between bashful and defiant, with a pleasingly smooth singing voice. On stage throughout, she’s touching when talking about both her unhappiness and her confusion at not knowing what she wants to do, who she wants to be – apart from wanting to “fly with the eagles, swing from the chandeliers”.
The show, directed by Amy Hodge, with choreography by Dannielle Lecointe, has pedigree: it’s written by Sheffield’s own Chris Bush (Standing at the Sky’s Edge), with music by Girls Aloud/Kylie Minogue songwriter Miranda Cooper, together with Jennifer Decilveo (Beth Ditto, Miley Cyrus). Two of the five-strong cast appeared in producer Kenny Wax’s West End and Broadway musical hit Six – Renee Lamb as Catherine of Aragon, Christina Modestou as Anne Boleyn.
“Went down a storm”
Six brought Henry VIII’s wives to the forefront of his story. FGW brings similar messages of women battling against the odds to make themselves seen and heard. So we hear about civil rights activist Rosa Parks (Lamb) refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, Native American guide Sacagawea (Jade Kennedy) helping an 1804 US military exploration of North West America, and about Emmeline Pankhurst herself (Kirstie Skivington, Manchester accent, purple combat uniform and all).
And it does so with the lightest of touches, romping quickly and slickly through 300 years of women’s achievements with a pop song and rap dance for every occasion. Yes, the sound is sometimes over-amplified, the three-strong band (also female and very much part of the action) drowning out some of the lyrics. Yes, it’s sometimes (often) shouty. And yes, the script is sometimes self-help book clichéd – “It’s not just about where you go but also who you take with you”, “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can”. But it still went down a storm with the young girls, students, mums and aunts who seemed to make up most of the large audience last night, and who gave it a standing ovation at the end.
The feel-good factor, after all, is very high. So there were whoops and cheers for lines like “There’s no such thing as an ordinary women” and “Well behaved women rarely make history”. Other highlights include scenes where the colourfully vibrant artist Frida Kahlo (Kennedy) sings ‘Fantastically Great’, complete with Mexican Day of the Dead masks and floral headdresses, where Pankhurst (indeed a distant relative of the book’s author) sings ‘Deeds Not Words’, and where all four actresses, in an array of kickass costumes, celebrate the ‘four Marys’ – Seacole and Anning plus Maries Curie and Chilver, aka 2nd World War British spy Agent Fifi.
For the record, I’d never heard of Fifi, nor of Sacagawea, nor of Olympic swimmer Gertrude Ederle – even though I have an MA in Women’s Studies. So it just goes to show that, although this joyously encouraging show, with its message to “Take up space, stand your ground” is aimed at a younger audience, it can still teach the rest of us a lesson or two. Maybe someone should send Meghan Markle a ticket.
‘Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World’ is at the Sheffield Lyceum until Saturday.
More information: fantasticallygreatwomenthemusical.com