Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World at Theatre Royal Stratford East review: an unapologetic joy

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Jade Kennedy as Frida Kahlo in Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World at Theatre Royal Stratford East  (Pamela Raith)
Jade Kennedy as Frida Kahlo in Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World at Theatre Royal Stratford East (Pamela Raith)

Poor old Frida Kahlo. First her monobrowed mug was used to decorate innumerable fridge magnets, t-shirts and novelty socks. Then the creators of this new family musical about feminist role models made her skip across the stage, singing a song about the power of living in A World of Colour. On paper, it sounds cheesy. But somehow, the dream team behind the show have managed to turn the commercialised business of heroine-worship into something that’s both nuanced and unapologetically joyful.

Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie and Mary Seacole all make an appearance, just as they do in the non-fiction picture book by Kate Pankhurst that inspired this show. But here, instead of being historically accurate representations, they’re larger-than-life characters who dance through the imagination of 11-year-old Jade (an endlessly perky Kudzai Mangombe), weighing in on her pre-teen dilemmas. She’s fed up of being ignored, shushed and left behind. But then she stumbles upon the Gallery of Greatness in a local museum, where suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst teaches her the power of protest, and Jane Austen inspires her to write her thoughts down.

Playwright Chris Bush’s story is full of thoughtful meditations on what we can learn from these figures in a world where most women don’t make history. Still, Jade doesn’t feel like an altogether three-dimensional character, because her main role here is to listen patiently as historical figures belt musical theatre songs at her. But what songs they are. They’re the handiwork of Miranda Cooper, who penned pop classics such as Love Machine for Girls Aloud and Round Round for Sugababes, so it’s no surprise that they’re wonderfully earwormy, especially the aforementioned Kahlo number and percussive suffragette anthem Deeds Not Words.

Renée Lamb as Ameila Earhart (Pamela Raith)
Renée Lamb as Ameila Earhart (Pamela Raith)

Renée Lamb, Christina Modestou, Jade Kennedy and Kirstie Skivington take it in turns to seize the limelight: they each play at least three roles apiece and make impressive work of it, switching from schoolteachers to suffragettes to sporting heroes with seemingly endless energy.

With its all-female cast, historical themes and pop soundtrack, this show definitely shares some DNA with West End mega-hit Six the Musical. But director Amy Hodge sets her sights firmly on a younger audience, offering witty moments such as Earhart producing snacks from the depths of her knickerbockers, or Gertrude Ederle ‘swimming the channel’ through a sheet of rippling blue fabric.

Joanna Scotcher’s design is a kid-friendly joy, providing colourful doors for these characters to pop out of, and costumes that are appealing without being hyper-girly. And the show’s ultimate conclusion – that everyone makes a dent on history, however small it might be – is one that’ll inspire children, instead of daunting them.

It’s a fantastically great ending to a night that has all the energy of a girl band concert, mixed with just enough history to tempt young people to read up on its stars, once its final notes fade away.

Theatre Royal Stratford East, to July 17; buy tickets here

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