Mary Woodward Review

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Review:

***** (5 stars)

Author Kate Pankhurst didn’t discover she was related to the famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst until she was in her twenties.  The heroine of this show, Jade, feels she is invisible: no-one ever listens to what she has to say – indeed, they rarely give her a chance to speak.  When her school goes on a trip to a museum, she isn’t really very surprised to find that everyone’s gone on without her, and she’s all alone – no-one has noticed she’s missing.  She’s always been good, polite, and helpful but that’s never enough: she wonders whether being naughty would get her noticed at all.

Suddenly a door behind her lights up, and to her astonishment a woman in a green flying suit appears, saying I heard you were lost so I came to find you – and Jade’s adventure begins.  The aviator is Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and then the Pacific Oceans.  She is joined by Trudy – Gertrude Ederle, who was the first woman to swim the English Channel [incidentally doing it faster than the five men who’d managed the feat previously] – and Sacagawea, a native American Indian who guided explorers Lewis and Clark across the Rocky mountains in the west of America, translating for them and saving their lives on many occasions.

Emmeline Pankhurst joins the trio of women and Jade, who knows how effective she was in making heard the previously ignored voices of women demanding to be able to vote, asks the four women How do you get people to listen?  There have already been some great musical numbers underlining the importance of finding out who you really are, and what you’re capable of, but the ensuing ensemble DEEDS NOT WORDS gets the whole audience [and Jade] really buzzing.  Previous songs have been loudly applauded: the cheers for this one nearly blew the roof off!

The women leave, and Jade is left wondering what she really wants.  Jane Austen appears, but Jade doesn’t have a clue who she is until – oh, you wrote that film with Colin Firth in it – to which Jane responds does anyone still read nowadays?  The two are joined by artist Frida Kahlo, dressed in a riot of colour and lighting up the stage.  Her training as a doctor ended when she was involved in a traffic accident, and she tells Jade Life doesn’t always fit together tidily – sometimes you have to colour outside the lines.   She urges Jade to follow her example: she shows how she sees the world – this is my fantasy, I paint my own reality – but Jade isn’t so sure – I’m just no good at anything…

Jade feels she needs a superhero to fix her problems – and she gets not one, but four!  Most appropriately for Scotland, we meet the four Marys – Mary Anning, Mary Seacole and Marie Curie, along with Agent Fifi [whose real name turns out to be Mary, too].  Mary Anning was a fossil collector and palaeontologist whose discoveries in the cliffs at Lyme Regis in Dorset contributed to major changes in scientific thinking about prehistory and life on earth – though this was not widely acknowledged in her lifetime.  Mary Seacole, originally from Jamaica, went to the Crimea and, when ignored by the War Office, set up her own hospital and nursed wounded soldiers on both sides of the conflict. 

Marie Curie was born in Poland and studied in France: she discovered two new elements – polonium and radium – and championed the use of radium in medicine. Initially disregarded as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for physics simply because she was a woman, she is the only person to have received Nobel prizes in two separate disciplines – physics and chemistry.  Agent Fifi [real name Marie Christine Chilver] studied languages in Paris during WW2.  When Germany invaded France she was sent to a German prison camp but escaped: she was recruited as a secret agent and used her skills and knowledge to test and train other spies.

These four Marys tell Jade there is no such thing as an ordinary woman and inspire Jade to declare I can do anything; to which they respond so what are you going to do, Jade?  But Jade still really doesn’t know… Rosa Parks enters – Jade is overwhelmed to meet her heroine, about whom she knows so much.  Rosa tells Jade that her protest against segregation came about because she was tired of giving in, saying safe doesn’t change the world, does it?  To Jade’s protestation that she doesn’t know what she really wants, or who she is, Rosa responds you are PHENOMENAL, you will change the world just by living in it: if you stand up for what you believe in, it will be worthwhile.  Anne Frank, who now appears, didn’t live to see the world change – she died with most of her family in German prison camps – but Rosa tells Jade that Anne dreamed about the world she wanted, and her father, who survived, published her diary, and her dreams spread all round the world.  A better world for everyone begins with better dreams: dream of a world where everyone is welcome, everyone is free: not every story has a happy ending, but the work goes on.  

The final number celebrates all the fantastically great women who changed the world.  We are reminded that no-one changes the world all by themselves – we are all a part of something much bigger, and that we’ll never be alone – we have the inspiring example of all the sisters who have gone before us.  It’s a rousing number which has the largely young, female audience cheering and clapping along, applauding loudly at the final curtain calls, and going out into the ‘normal’ world in a buzz of conversation which I devoutly hope signals an awakening to the limitless possibilities that lie before them.

The show is inspiring, fast-moving and full of energy.  It was only during the closing number that I finally realised all these fantastic women are played by four extremely talented actresses – Renée Lamb, Kirstie Skivington, Christina Modestou and Jade Kennedy – while Jade herself was played by the amazing Kudzai Mangombe.  The songs by Miranda Cooper are catchy, apposite, and memorable, with musical director Audra Cramer on keyboards, Rhiannon Hopkins on keys and drums and Chloe Rianna on drums all perched in boxes up above the action. 

Director Amy Hodge has produced a magnificent show – brightly-coloured, superbly lit, and fizzing with energy – it’s a real treat, not to be missed.  I only wish something like this had existed when I was young and being indoctrinated into the “women are the lesser species” mentality that prevailed – my life might have been a whole lot different.   

Change the world: bring your sons, bring your daughters, your parents and grandparents to the show and let them see the vast range of possibilities that lie just waiting to be explored!

Mary Woodward

 Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Runs until Saturday 30thApril, For tickets go to: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/fantastically-great-women-who-changed-the-world

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