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REVIEW: Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World
Based on the picture book by Kate Pankhurst
The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Rating: ★★★

This “kickass-pirational” musical for the over-sevens is adapted from Kate Pankhurst’s fantastically popular picture book of the same name.  It takes its young audience on a giddy gallop through the inspiring achievements of twelve female role-models, each of whom changed the world for the better.

The show hits the ground running with a punchy opening number, sung by a gaggle of teachers on a trip to a museum where one gallery is enticingly out of bounds.  Overlooked by the grown-ups, the usually compliant Jade enters the forbidden “Gallery of Greatness”, where she meets a succession of FGWWCTW.  These inspiring women teach the youngster a series of life-lessons, distilled into pithy aphorisms: “Paint outside the lines!”  “Deeds, not words!”  “Well behaved women rarely make history!”  Through their example, Jade is empowered to take control of her own life.  It’s a cracking piece of “edu-tainment”: a musical TED-talk for young ’uns.

Gobbets of biographical exposition are sweetened by Miranda Cooper and Jennifer Decilveo’s catchy songs, Dannielle ‘Rhimes’ Lecointe’s exuberant choreography, and Amy Hodge’s ingenious direction.  Amelia Earhart’s aeroplane is whistled-up from cardboard wings and a bucketful of imagination.  Channel swimmer Gertrude Ederle plunges into choppy waters fashioned from a shaken silken sheet.  Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst (Kate’s distant ancestor) is reimagined as a mash-up of marching-bandleader, warrior and rapper.  A band of three female musicians (Audra Cramer, Rhiannon Hopkins and Chloe Rianna), perched atop Joanna Scotcher’s bright, fluorescent set, provides a thrilling soundtrack.

The stories of the women of action – Amelia Earhart, Gertrude Ederle, Sacagawea, Emmeline Pankhurst and “Agent Fifi” – work best.  But in Chris Bush’s adaptation, the stories of the artistic, medical and scientific heroines – Jane Austen, Frida Kahlo, Mary Seacole, Mary Anning and Marie Curie – are less successful.  The need to simplify (unavoidable, given the age of the target audience) leads to a loss of important nuance.  One example is the portrayal of Anne Frank.  The dreadful truth of her story cannot be fully told in the context of a children’s show.  Consequently, Anne is reduced to a cipher.  She speaks less than she is spoken to.  This has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing one of the negative stereotypes that the show aims to challenge.  Only one character – Rosa Parks – straddles the divide between words and deeds.  Her account of her brave actions (which generously acknowledges that she did not act alone) and her lullaby to Anne Frank are deeply moving.

The young actors bring a raw energy to their performances.  This is a ensemble piece, and it would be invidious to single out any individual.  Having said that, full credit goes to the two ‘swings’, Clarice Julianda and Elise Zavou, who I believe stood in as Jade and Sacagawea et al.  I say “I believe” because, if it was mentioned in the pre-show announcement, I didn’t catch it.

I definitely heard the pre-show announcer ask us to eat our snacks quietly.  However, the young Brownie sitting behind me had other plans.  She was a rebel with a bag of Wotsits.  Perhaps, one day, she’ll be Queen of the World.

Running time: 1½ hours (no interval)
Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World runs at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, until Sunday 22 May 2022.

© 2022 Paul Sharples
Explore Gloucestershire
18 May 2022

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