Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World at Theatre Royal Stratford East – review
The new musical runs at the London venue until 17 July
Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World is a fantastically energetic and impassioned show that provokes a fantastically strong response in an audience of mainly young women – possibly fans of the series of books on which it is based.
I don't know much about those books by Kate Pankhurst, but I enjoyed the spirit of the show, its assertion that women are capable of anything and that everybody changes the world just by being in it. Whether you change it for better or worse is entirely up to you.
It gets this message across by sending a quiet and insecure schoolgirl called Jade (an assured and appealing Kudzai Mangombe) on a school trip, during which she accidentally gets separated from her party and finds herself in a closed wing of a museum where she encounters all kinds of inspirational women from the past.
She needs their help because she's unhappy at home, as her parents go through a divorce, and feels nobody listens to her. She wants to find her voice. The historical figures she meets, from Jane Austen to Rosa Parks, help her do just that by suggesting different ways in which women can be heard and can make their mark.
Chris Bush who provides both the adaptation and the lyrics, along with Miranda Cooper (lyrics and music) and Jennifer Decilveo (music), keep the trajectory fairly simple and direct. All have musical form: Bush wrote the Richard Hawley-inspired Standing at the Sky's Edge; Cooper has written hits for the Sugababes and Girls Aloud; Decilveo is responsible for Andra Day's "Rise Up" and has worked with Miley Cyrus. The music reflects their talent for perfectly crafted pop that swings you along on its beat, with sharp lyrics and plenty of punch.
It's a show full of facts but also plenty of imagination. The first trio of women Jade encounters are Amelia Earhart, the aviator, Gertrude Ederle, the swimmer and Sacagawea, the Native American tracker who helped male explorers open up the wilds. The first is familiar, the stories of the others less known – and it's great fun that they are told through a dance routine (smart choreography by Dannielle ‘Rhimes' Lecointe) about different forms of adventure.
Director Amy Hodge keeps things moving along briskly and with some sophistication. Joanna Scotcher's designs – her costumes in particular – are a treat, imagining Emmeline Pankhurst in sparkly camouflage patches of the Suffragette colours of purple and green, and creating a girl backing band of Marys – Seacole, Curie and Anning – in fluorescent patched leathers.
Particular fun is had with Frida Kahlo, resplendent in floral headdress and rainbow wings, who asks "Does Wednesday taste of feet and betrayal?" before advising Jade that "In a world of colour you can draw outside the lines." For money, the show could do with slightly more of the wit in the former and less of the didacticism in the latter.
But I am not the target audience. The show as a whole is helped by winning and amiable performances from the hard-working Jade Kennedy, Renée Lamb, Kirstie Skivington, and Christina Modestou, switching cleverly between all the roles. This musical doesn't quite change the world, but it offers a great time en route.