Thursday, 18 November 2021

REVIEW: Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World at the MAST Mayflower Studios

Kate Pankhurst’s who is distantly related to the suffragette Emily Pankhurst first published her book Fantastically Great Women in 2016 and will soon have seven in the series. Changed the World is now accompanied by Made History, Worked Wonders, Saved the Planet, Stories of Ambition, Adventure and Bravery, Scientists, and their stories and soon Artistes and their stories. These beautifully illustrated books must have caught the imagination of a new young generation of girls and their mothers and are a compelling reminder of the many achievements of a group of heroines highly committed and motivated to make a difference to the World. At a time when the theatre has such a vital role to play in promoting equality and diversity, the material is ripe for adaption to the stage.

Chris Bush has adapted the books for the stage with the music of Miranda Cooper and Jennifer Decilveo and created a seventy-five-minute celebration of some of these women aimed very firmly at young girls aged 6 to 16 and their mums who might be inspired by the stories. The end result is a sort of mash-up of Horrible Histories with a Night in the Museum and an occasional touch of the Six musical treatment of Henry VIII’s wives. The development of all musicals takes time and there is a sense that this premiere at MAST in Southampton is not quite the finished article with every aspect requiring fine-tuning and adjustment.

Set in the Gallery of Greatness which is depicted as a warehouse of brown crates with bright illuminated neon arrow lights the structure has the young actress playing Jade on stage throughout. She is the schoolgirl hiding with her teddy bear as the gallery closes, or was it opening it was hard to tell, to have an adventure in which she meets the characters from the past. It is a lot to ask of the four young ladies who rotate the role. On opening night 16-year-old Eva-Marie Saffrey, who has appeared as Matilda in the West End, played the part of the 11-year-old Jade and the first-night audience gave her deserved rapturous encouragement at every opportunity.

The music, played by a band of two keyboards and a drummer, never really hits the heights of Six and a poor sound mix and amplification meant the heavy bass tones drowned out some of the vocals, leaving the singers at times almost shouting to be heard. In “Where do you want to go?” we meet Amelia Earhart (the Aviator), Sacagawea (the Native American explorer) and Gertrude Ederle (the Channel swimmer) on the pretext that to decide on her adventure Jade must consider whether to go by air, land, or sea. In “Deeds not words” we meet Emily Pankhurst dressed like Cheryl Cole in her hit “Fight for this love” hit who advises Jade that well-behaved women don’t make history. Next up is Jane Austin and Frida Kahlo (an artiste) in “World of colours” with a cacophony of drumming on anything they can find.

Only two songs really stand out and match the musical excellence of Six, producer Kenny Wax’s break out hit show. “Mary, Mary and Marie” finds Marie Curie (1857 Nobel winning scientist), Mary Seacole (the Jamaican 1805 Crimean War nurse) and Mary Anning (the 1799 Lyme Regis fossil hunter) together for no obvious reason except they have the same first name. To them is added Marie Christine Chilver (a 1940 secret agent) who follows up with “Fifi super spy”. However, the costumes and poppy tunes have a strong Six vibe and are the best two routines of the show. Rosa Park (the USA civil rights protester) gets to sing the touchingly pleasantly melodic “Lullaby Little Girl”. 

The characters, dressed in bright primary colour costumes, are played by Jade Kennedy, Renee Lamb, Frances Mayli McCann and Christina Modestou and they play this diverse range of female role models with plenty of energy and enthusiasm. The script calls on them to introduce the historical figures in quite clunky wordy speeches which are essential for some of these less well-known figures and to draw out a lesson for Jade from their experience. The stories are worth telling and do offer an inspirational message that with commitment and effort you can succeed in your ambitions regardless of your starting position and remind us that there is still more to do to achieve full equality for a diverse population. But the messages and historical tales could have been told more powerfully and meaningfully than this adaption offers. The young children around me were absorbed and excited for the first 40 minutes but their attention began to wander as the show progressed without an interval. Director Amy Hodge and choreographer Dannielle ‘Rhimes’ Lecointe keep the staging and movement like a pop video with plenty of high energy arm movements and raised knees in well-drilled routines but lacked variety and elegance and incorporated inexplicable use of small stage trucks. 

The show runs at MAST until 20 November then tours to Norwich Playhouse, Liverpool Playhouse, Aylesbury Waterside and Chichester Festival Theatre. If you have a female child or grandchild under 16 then this could be for you, or better still buy the books for their Christmas presents! 

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row EE | Price of Ticket: £24.50
Blog Design by pipdig