REVIEW: ‘Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World’ – Milton Keynes Theatre, January 2024

 

Can I have your attention please? Uplifting musical Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World leaves theatregoers of all ages walking taller and humming toe-tapping tunes.

The production, which is based on a non-fiction picture book by suffragette descendant Kate Pankhurst, is bringing inspiring women to the stage at Milton Keynes Theatre this week. Dramatist Chris Bush and songwriters Miranda Cooper and Jennifer Decilveo have creatively honoured the legacy of some of the world’s most iconic women by giving them bold and insightful words to say and a great pop soundtrack to sing.

Eleven-year-old protagonist Jade is visiting the local museum on a school trip with her classmates. Jade tends to be one of the “quiet children” teachers sing the praises of (those children that “never get detention”). Unfortunately, what this often means is that Jade frequently ends up being invisible and insignificant (as such children “don’t require attention”). Her teachers easily forget about her, while her parents’ impending divorce has left her feeling voiceless and powerless.

When she is inadvertently deserted by her harried teachers, Jade stumbles across the Gallery of Greatness, which is not yet open to the public. This wing of the museum pays homage to some of the most amazing women from history. As something of a lost soul, Jade doubts that she will ever make her mark on the world like those fantastic women did.

Fortunately, this entire show is a vibrant lesson in herstory (history from a female perspective) and self-belief. As soon as Jade slips into the out-of-bounds space it bursts into energetic life to empower her to be part of the movement and recognise her own greatness. Through a series of upbeat musical encounters, she gets to know an all-singing, all-dancing sisterhood of wise – and wisecracking – wonder women. And learns that “there is no such thing as an ordinary woman”.

 

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World, the musical. Inquisitive schoolgirl Jade ventures into the out-of-bounds Gallery of Greatness during a school trip to the local museum.

 

Georgia Grant-Anderson shines brightly as inquisitive Jade. Playing more than ten years younger than her age and pretty much always on the stage, she imbues the restless tweenager with a charismatic blend of sensitivity and sass. Furrowed brow, fidgety limbs, mischievous grin, endearing astonishment. She is utterly convincing as she contemplates how lost she is – in the museum and in life – and joyfully interacts with her new friends.

Between them, the remaining five cast members bring twelve fantastically great women from history to life – and four harmonising teachers too. There’s intrepid interpreter Sacagawea, passionate but frustrated painter Frida Kahlo and mother of modern physics Marie Curie (all portrayed by Elena Breschi). Emmeline Pankhurst is still marching for deeds not words, while Agent Fifi is always on a mission (both enigmatically played by Jennifer Caldwell). World-record-holding swimmer Gertrude Ederle makes a splash, superstar novelist Jane Austen adds amusement to persuasive writing and dinosaur-fossil-discovering Mary Anning has a bone to pick with the men who hid behind their moustaches while flaunting her finds (all played with verve by Chlöe Hart). We fly high with aviation adventurer Amelia Earhart, nurse soldiers back to health with medical pioneer Mary Seacole and calmly fight for our rights with civil rights activist Rosa Parks (all portrayed by Leah Vassell). Even Anne Frank makes a brief appearance (Millie Kiss, making her adult stage debut).

The women whose pictures are on the gallery’s wall didn’t set out to be thought of as great. They chased their dreams and did what they thought was right to make the world a better place. Upon meeting Jade, they all become her life coaches. They share their stories and strive to help her find her own sense of purpose and stand up for what she believes in.

The premise is simple, but effective. The takeaway message is that you must “follow your passion and make your mistakes” because “even if you can’t always be good, you’ll be fantastically great”. The women join forces to convince Jade that she has an intrinsic value and will make an impact on the world if she follows her heart. Their chorus of courage, competence and confidence never promises that things will be easy. But all these fascinating female figures, each of whom accomplished incredible feats, loudly and proudly declare that it is always worth trying and situations can be improved.

 

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World, the musical. Four anorak-wearing women (Jade Kennedy, Christina Modestou, Kirstie Skivington and Renee Lamb) stand together, singing, in the Gallery of Greatness.

 

All the motivational stories and meaningful messages are encapsulated in catchy, clearly enunciated songs. These include the teachers wishing for ‘Quiet Children’. Jade declaring ‘I’m Here’ and then being asked ‘Where Do You Want To Go?’. Frida Kahlo inviting us to ‘A World Of Colour’. Ultimately, we learn what makes us all ‘Fantastically Great’ and finish with a megamix finale. The sound is punchy pop, pepped up with light rock and a smattering of rap. The lyrics are informative, encouraging and easily remembered. There are immersive moments and opportunities for audience participation, plus the all-female band is visible throughout.

The dancing is, at times, somewhat repetitive. However, it is so animated and enjoyable to watch that this doesn’t matter. Dannielle ‘Rhimes’ Lecointe’s choreography captures the strength, grace and bravery of the characters. It provides them with opportunities to use inclusive sign language, paint their dreams, shake maracas and march to the beat of their own drums.

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World is a dynamic celebration of just a few of the superhero sisters who helped shape the world we live in today. It is also a brilliant reminder that each of us changes the world simply by being in it. Ultimately, this fun, family friendly introduction to feminism left me feeling proud. Proud to be a woman. Proud to know strong and capable women. Proud to see genuine girl power being embodied by talented women in theatre for the purpose of educating and igniting young minds.

A fantastic show for girls and boys that is nuanced enough for grown-ups too.

 

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World, the musical. Three women in superhero scientist costumes pose on the stage. Three more women sit in luminous cubicles above the stage, playing keyboards and percussion instruments.

 

Running time: Approximately 1 hour 20 minutes.

Age guidance: 7+

 

*Production photography by Pamela Raith.

 

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 27 January. The UK tour continues until 16 March.

 

This review is also featured on Total MK.

 

 

Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.

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