Review: Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World at The Lyceum

Being at the Sheffield world premiere of Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World on Tuesday night felt like a moment.

By Sarah Crabtree
Wednesday, 1st June 2022, 10:13 am
Jade Kennedy, Christina Modestou, Kirstie Skivington and Renee Lamb in Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World at The Lyceum. Photo: Pamela Raith
Jade Kennedy, Christina Modestou, Kirstie Skivington and Renee Lamb in Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World at The Lyceum. Photo: Pamela Raith

Just like the strong women whose incredible lives it celebrates, the show is spectacular, inspiring, moving, empowering, not always perfect, brilliant.

It feels like the birth of something – a production that will run and run, which ought to be made much longer with an interval added, and which will surely go on to take the West End, Broadway and beyond by storm.

For now, grasp the chance to say you saw it here first. Seize the opportunity to celebrate yet another writing triumph by Sheffield-born (and Sheffield Theatres associate director) playwright Chris Bush – she of Standing at the Sky’s Edge – who is so unassumingly fantastically great herself that she celebrated her hometown premiere by… catching the bus home from Church Street afterwards. (We were on the same bus, sitting across the aisle, and foolishly only later realised who she was.)

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Renee Lamb and Kudzai Mango in Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World at The Lyceum. Photo: Pamela Raith

The show, by the same producer as international hit SIX, is based on the picture book by Kate Pankhurst – distant relative of suffragette Emmeline.

Just like the book – with its energising text and brilliantly animated and exciting pictures – the stage version is vibrant, vivid, funny, riotous and alive. The set and the costumes are neon bright, witty, deceptively simple, and unapologetically fun.

The plot follows 11-year-old schoolgirl Jade (played by Kudzai Mangombe) who stumbles into the most mind-blowing school trip ever, in a museum where heroines of history come alive and pass on their words of wisdom for a life lived with passion, bravery, adventure and impact.

Wrangling with feelings of invisibility, Jade is ‘seen’ by the sassy spirits of real life wonderwomen from Amelia Earhart and Jane Austen to cross-Channel swimmer Gertrude Ederle, and wonders how she too can make her mark on the world.

Jade Kennedy as Frida Kahlo and Christina Modestou as Jane Austen in new musical Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, premiering at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield

It’s infectiously inspiring – and also a little bit daunting. You spend quite a lot of the ruefully short one hour and 15 minute running time thinking you really need to be a bit more fantastically great yourself, and come out quite determined to do something about it!

The all-female cast, and all-female band of live musicians, bring high energy, feminist positivity and some beautiful harmonies to a kick-ass song list of nine new numbers, penned by pop hitmaker Miranda Cooper (who has written for Girls Aloud, the Sugababes and Kylie). Some of the show’s tunes sound like chart-toppers themselves.

The Frida Kahlo segment is a dizzying whirlwind of colour and sheer life force. Foot-stomping ‘Deeds Not Words’, by a rapping (why not!) Emmeline Pankhurst, and ‘Mary, Mary and Marie’ (which celebrates fossil hunter Mary Anning, nurse Mary Seacole, and Nobel Prize winning scientist Marie Curie) are among the standout musical moments.

And then there’s a song towards the end that is so moving it’s tough to hold back the tears. Seeing US civil rights activist Rosa Parks (sung to perfection by Renee Lamb) brought to life alongside Holocaust diarist Anne Frank, sitting together and sharing their lives, and wondering yourself what Anne Frank’s life might have become – she conceivably could still be alive, aged 92, today – is unexpectedly extremely emotional.

Jade Kennedy as Frida Kahlo in Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World is at The Lyceum. Photo: Pamela Raith

The show is a total triumph. It’s fantastically great. And you must go to see it if you can.

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World is at The Lyceum, until Saturday

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World at The Lyceum. Photo: Pamela Raith