Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World

A fun and a teensy bit historical review of an Aylesbury Waterside Theatre production of the musical based on Kate Pankhurst’s novel. My theatre buddy and I (daughter Phoebe, age 15) went to the theatre last week to see this uplifting musical performance. I found it inspiring and empowering and enlightening and frustrating – how recent it was where it was so tough for women to simply …

Before I continue and to clarify, one of the main post-show discussions Phoebe and I had was that the production did not slate men. It was not so overwhelmingly pro-women that it left mankind wanting.

This celebratory musical has been brought together by the same talented people who took ‘Six’ to the masses, here and across the pond. I knew I’d enjoy their new show as I had adored Six.

Female led stories were brought to the stage accompanied by a trio of musical woman who were the on-stage band and very much part of the show rather than being hidden in the orchestra pit. Some of the great women in the story I knew of such as Emmeline Pankhurst (the author’s ancestor no less) and some I didn’t including Mary Anning, the dinosaur discoverer. The show follows 10 year old Jade who is on a school trip to a museum (Night at the Museum etc…) and she wants to run away to prompt her parents to finally notice her. Whilst hiding in the museum, she is visited by a plethora of great women from history.

Bang crash wallop and Amelia Earhart (1897-1937) the transatlantic solo-aeroplane pilot, descends onto the stage. Despite becoming lost in 1937, her legacy lives on to this day in the Ninety-Nines group of female pilots. She sets the seed of adventure in Jade.

Next was Sacagawea (1788-1812) (meaning either bird woman or boat pusher depending on which native tribe you ask). A Native-American pioneer of the West of the USA, an explorer. She originated from a nomadic tribe so she had learned crucial survival skills before she was taken from her tribe at age 12 before ultimately becoming the celebrated guide and interpreter for the Corps of Discovery explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. My opinion? Kidnap on every count!! And she shared her expertise whilst having a baby strapped to her back. Kudos.

Gertrude Ederle (1905-2003) ‘swam’ onto set wearing pretty much exactly what is shown in the photo. Very watchable, refreshingly womanly, and incredibly funny. I wrongly assumed that Gertrude was English as she had swum the Channel. She was, however, American of course, despite her having a Welsh accent. Silly me.

Jane Austin (1775-1817) made me chuckle in a smug literary knowing kind of way. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a…puppy.” Whilst the esteemed author did not publish her writings under her own name in her lifetime, she did not hide her gender proclaiming that her novels were written ‘By a Lady‘.

Then Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) marched on stage and belted out a fantastic tune quoting the immortal “Deeds not Words” slogan.

So women only got the vote in 1918? After all my grandparents had been born? And only those over 30 with property? The rest of us underlings weren’t afforded that privilege until 1928 – less than 100 years ago. Yes, that got my blood a little heated and also that of my daughter.

Our favourite song of the night, A World of Colour, celebrated Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), the mono-browed prolific self-potrait painting Mexican. She was training to be a doctor before an accident ended that dream. She turned to painting and it is that legacy which is being celebrated in this musical extravaganza.

My Dad asked me what was so great about Frida to earn her a place on this stage. I have to admit that despite seeing her face on many a cushion and poster, she is not quite as groundbreaking and glass-ceiling smashing as the other truly great woman here. However, she is clearly a feminist icon with comments such as “I will not restrict my self-expression in order to fit your idea of what a woman should look like“.

During this great song, one of the on-stage band, a former cast member of STOMP, joined the actors with drums and sticks and treated us in the audience to an rendition from that show. Phoebe had already seen STOMP and recognised the drumstick work which was magical. All in all, a showcase of amazing women played by amazing real women.

Mary, Mary, Marie and Marie. So clever a song, so brilliantly performed.

Mary Seacole (1805-1881) was a Jamaican born nurse who cared for soldiers during the Crimean war. Born to a Jamaican mother and Scottish father, she was refused permission to join Florence Nightingale’s team so she funder her own travels.
At only 12 years old, Mary Anning (1799-1847) discovered the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton. She continued finding fossils that helped change humans’ understanding of prehistoric life and natural history. As she was a woman, she did not get credit for her discoveries and only in recent years was this rectified.
Marie Curie (1867-1934) was a Polish French-Nationalised double Nobel prize winner for both Chemistry and Physics – the first woman to win it and the only person to win it twice in two fields. Her pioneering work on radioactivity saw her discover the elements Polonium and Radium, the latter of which is still used today to treat cancer.
Marie Christine Chilver (1920 – 2007) was a British Secret Agent in WWII and went by the alias Agent Fifi. Originally recruited after escaping the Nazis and helping a British airman return to England, she went on to test the security of trainee spies as part of the Security Operations Exec (SEO). It was rumoured that agents like Fifi would attempt to seduce male trainee spies to persuade them to reveal their secrets. Those that told all were sacked.

Rosa Parks (1913-2005) brought the story to a conclusion with her love and care towards Jade. Seen here with Martin Luther King Jr. in the background.

I believed Rosa Parks was the first to defy the racial segregation of southern America in the 1960s but she was not; as explained on stage, she was just part of the civil rights movement for liberation. After refusing to move seats on a bus to make way for a white passenger, she became an international icon of resistance.

Anne Frank (1929-1945) made a brief appearance a sung a lullaby duet with Rosa. More was made of the importance of her diaries than of her and her family’s time in the war, and rightly so.

A huge resounding finale of Fantastically Great saw five large neon-lit letters, spelling G-R-E-A-T being danced around the stage and at one point they spelled “Greta” which was quite clever. Clapping and cheering from behind masks ensued from a slightly depleted audience due to the dreaded Covid no doubt. This musical comes highly recommended by both me and Phoebe.

Finally, my favourite woman on stage wasn’t actually a character, but an actress: Christina Modestou. Her Welsh comic timing was superb and she portrayed the ladies so well and was a joy to watch and listen to. Plus she really really can sing a tune; boy oh boy can she. Or should I say girl oh girl?

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