King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
I almost don’t make it to tonight’s production of Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World. The drama class I’m teaching doesn’t finish until 6.30pm, and FGWWCTW starts at 7pm. That’s half an hour to get from Fairmilehead to Tollcross, which ought to be do-able but – well, this is Edinburgh – there are roadworks. It’s 6.57pm when I park up, and then dash breathlessly to the King’s Theatre, charging into the box office, hollering ‘thanks’ as I hurtle through to the foyer, before racing to the auditorium. I slump into my seat next to Philip, only for the end of an umbrella to appear before my eyes. “Phones off!” says a voice. There’s a woman in a raincoat and glasses, all mock severity, and that’s it. The show’s begun. She marches onto the stage, barking instructions. The lights go down…
Well, no. FGWWCTW is not a relaxing show at all. In fact, the frantic urgency of my arrival serves well to set the mood. This is a dynamic, fast-paced gallop of a show, as bold and spirited as can be – like SIX’s little sister. I love it.
Based on Kate Pankhurst’s 2016 nonfiction best-seller of the same name and directed by Amy Hodge, the musical has a simple premise. Jade (Kudzai Mangombe) is on a school trip to a museum. Ever the ‘good girl,’ she has helpfully stopped to retrieve other students’ misplaced items, only to be forgotten in the chaos – and left behind. This, we learn, is typical: Jade’s quiet obedience means that she is often ignored or overlooked. A disembodied tannoy voice tells her that the museum is closing, urges her to leave, and forbids her from entering the Gallery of Greatness she’s standing outside. But Jade has had enough of doing as she’s told. This time, she’s going to do what she wants to do – so into the Gallery she goes.
It’s a good decision. Inside, Jade meets a host of inspiring women, who share their stories with her, and urge her to find her own greatness. There’s Sacagawea, Frida Kahlo and Marie Curie (Jade Kennedy); Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks and Mary Seacole (Renée Lamb); Gertrude Ederle, Jane Austen and Mary Anning (Christina Modestou) – not to mention Emmeline Pankhurst and Agent Fifi (Kirstie Skivington). Anne Frank puts in an appearance too (she’s played with charm and grace by young actor, Lana Turner, who shares her name, of course, with another ‘fantastically great woman’.) The women are all wise in their own ways: some are funny and some are serious; some are gentle and some are fierce. But they are all, without exception, exceptional. “Take up space,” they tell Jade; “find a way to make yourself heard.” Jade doesn’t know what she’s good at or what she wants to do, but they tell her that doesn’t matter. All she has to do is exist, be true to herself and stand up for what she believes is right – and she will change the world.
The target audience is a young one (6+), and the theatre tonight is full of enthusiastic kids. It’s heartwarming to witness: they’re enraptured by the audacious performances and the maverick message. Even as an adult, I’m totally engaged, caught up in the drama, delighted that Jade is being encouraged to dare. Mangombe’s performance is central, of course, and she’s mightily impressive. When I consult the programme, I’m genuinely shocked to realise she’s an adult, as she embodies a conflicted eleven-year-old so well.
The songs (by Miranda Cooper, Chris Bush and Jennifer Decilveo) and choreography (Dannielle ‘Rhimes’ Lecointe) are great. None of it’s subtle: this is as in-your-face and brazen as it gets. It works. It’s impossible not to feel energised and, yes, empowered.
“A better world for everyone begins with dreams.” And “deeds, not words.” If you have children, there’s an easy first step: take them to see this.