This could quite easily have been terrible. A musical adaptation of a young children’s picture book about great women in history, with characters such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Mary Seacole serenading a schoolgirl in motivational terms about ‘dreaming a world of colour’, going on adventures and the need for ‘deeds not words’.
But if the format inspires thoughts of the kind of chewy, low-budget edu-tainment that gets wheeled out in primary school assemblies rather than major theatres, think again. Fantastically Great Women, while undeniably earnest, is a snappy, modern, 75-minute (no interval) whistle-stop of top-tapping numbers performed by a small, multi-ethnic team of highly watchable actors. Not least among them was, on the night that we attended, Éva-Marie Saffrey. This young star in the making played the aforementioned schoolgirl Jade endearingly as she searched for advice amid her parents’ divorce in a cordoned-off museum gallery, and yet also included sufficient amounts of sardonic eye-rolling to keep the six-year-olds chortling.
The grown-up actors were a hit too, particularly Jade Kennedy, who was hugely charismatic as Frida Kahlo, among other characters, and Christina Modestou, who brought a healthy dose of comedy to her potted portrayals of Jane Austen, cross-channel swimmer Gertrude Ederle and dinosaur hunter Mary Anning.
Parts of the dialogue involving biographies of the featured women was a little too quick-fire for some younger audience members (I’m not completely sure that they always grasped what was going on as historical figures appeared, performed a number and vanished within a few scant minutes) but the songs were generally so much fun that it didn’t overly matter. The only possible exception to that was Lullaby Little Girl, which, while beautifully sung by Renée Lamb, somewhat deflated the positive momentum of the show coming as it did so close to the end.
The quality of this production is made less surprising by the fact that it is produced by the people behind the musical Six, which foregrounds the much-abused wives of Henry VIII, and here we have what is in many ways, with its powerful females and catchy tunes, a junior version of that smash. It makes for a refreshing alternative to the traditional panto fare, although perhaps the truest indication of genuine gender equality will be when we can stop remarking, however tunefully, on the fact that Fantastically Great Women do change the world.
Main image: Renee Lamb, Éva-Marie Saffrey, Christina Modestou.
Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World is at the Playhouse until January 2, 2022. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.