Pictures (all previous cast): Pamela Raith

Fantastically great women

 who changed the world

the musical

Coventry Belgrade


Who knew that Moss Side’s Emmeline Pankhurst was a rapper, or Frida Kahlo might have been a doctor had she not been almost killed by a bus, or that Gertrude Ederle . . . Gertrude who?

You will find the answer and much more in (take a breath) Fantastically great women who changed the world, the musical, a sort of upbeat, pop flavoured history lesson putting the case for, at the very least, a recognition of the contribution of women to our history.

In the relatively recent past you would have had more chance of getting a musical about Peruvian llama breeders told in mime on stage than one about famous women.

For a start apart from Boudica, Elizabeth I and Florence Nightingale, and her lamp, the history books were not awash with women, famous or otherwise, so this musical shows that the world the fantastically great women challenged is, slowly, changing..

Producer Kenny Wax was behind Six and the show, based on the books of Kate Pankhurst, a distant relative of Emmeline, follows a similar pattern mixing historical fact with snappy dance routines, flashy costumes and pop songs. It gets the message over much more than a dry lecture giving characters, all worthy of a show of their own, a more memorable voice.

We open with a school trip in a museum with Jade, 11, having lost the main group and ending up in a new exhibition, The Gallery of Greatness currently being prepared, a gallery where the exhibits come to life. It’s a lovely performance from Georgia Grant-Anderson.

As for Gertrude Ederle? The American, who only died in 2003, was an Olympic and world champion swimmer, and, in 1926, aged 19, become the first woman to swim the English Channel, beating the then record time by a minute shy of two hours. In a portend of what was to come, she apparently waded ashore at Dover, exhausted from her 14hr 34min marathon, to be greeted by an immigration official asking for her passport!

In later life she taught swimming to deaf children having become deaf herself as a result of childhood measles.

fan cast 

The Queen of the Waves, as she was known, was one of the lesser known, along with the likes of Mary Anning, the Lyme Regis palaeontologist who changed scientific thinking on life and creatures in prehistoric times, yet struggled for recognition in her own lifetime.

Another whose work was not appreciated was Polish born Marie Curie, whose first Nobel prize was only awarded when husband Pierre and his collaborator Henri Becquerel refused to accept the prize unless she was included as an equal contributor. She remains the only person awarded two Nobel prizes, one for physics one for chemistry.

Even less well known was Marie Christine Chilver, Agent Fifi, an English woman who escaped from Nazi internment in France and joined the Special Operations Executive training, testing and assessing the agents we were to send to occupied Europe.

Then there was Sacagawea, a native American from the Awatixa village in North Dakota who acted as guide, and often rescuer, to the celebrated Lewis and Clark American West expedition, all with her newborn baby strapped to her back.

Some names are more familiar, Amelia Earhart the pioneer aviator and the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo and first person to fly solo across the Pacific. In 1937, aged 39,  while attempting to be the first woman to circumnavigate the globe, her plane vanished without trace over the Pacific.

Mary Seacole, for so long in Florence Nightingale’s shadow, now shares the limelight and her huge contribution is recognised.

There are many more women who could have been included but the final two were perhaps the most telling, an example of fate making the ordinary extraordinary.

The rest had been proactive, set out to achieve, Rosa Parks, had had enough. On 1 December 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, she refused to vacate her seat in the coloured section of a bus when the white section was full.

She wasn’t the first but when she was charged under the state’s segregation laws it was the catalyst for a bus boycott by the black community that lasted more than a year and changed the US constitution.

She had dropped a tiny pebble in life’s pool and the waves rippled out and are still washing up on the shores of humanity today.

And then there is Frankfurt-born Anne Frank, the Jewish schoolgirl who, with her family was hidden in an Amsterdam office building for two years to evade the Nazis. They were eventually discovered and Ann and her sister Margot died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945, presumably from typhus. Her father was the only member of the family to survive and published Ann’s diary – a chronicle of hopes, dreams and the mundane, everyday life of her enforced life of hiding. In 70 languages it has never been out of print.

Each is given a voice and a say by a cast of four playing 15 characters and changing costumes at breakneck speed at times. Elena Breschi, Jennifer Caldwell. Chlöe Hart and Leah Vassell do a fine job at defining their characters with accents, gestures and voices while Joanna Scotcher’s costumes give us a sort of pop concert feel on a set that could be lifted from a teen cartoon such as Sponge Bob. 


Rosa Parks and Jade

It gives it an appeal for a younger audience in what seemed to be a school party heavy auditorium at the Belgrade, and credit to their schools, they were excited, appreciative, interested and well behaved.

The set was a collection of doors where characters came and went with the band above in a sort of penthouse glasshouse with musical director Audra Cramer on keys, Bronwen Chan on second keys, with bongos thrown in, and Isis Dunthorne on drums.

Chris Bush’s stage adaptation keeps things moving at a cracking pace while the songs, Bush and Miranda Cooper lyrics, and Cooper and Jennifer Decilveo music, are snappy pop style, although the words did get lost at times.

The production cleverly groups the characters together so we get the sporty and brash Ederle and Earhart together singing Where do you wanna go? 

Then there are the Marys, Anning and Seacole, and Marie Curie together, led by Agent Fifi, Marie Christine Chilver, singing Mary, Mary and Marie, while the arts gets an airing with the expansive Frida Kahlo singing the catchy World of Colour. She is joined by the rather formal Jane Austen working her book titles into conversation. Kahlo's advice to Jade: "If you are true to yourself you will always have a life that fits you."

Perhaps the most telling is Rosa’s Lullaby, a gentle anthem of hope with its message to Jade, and indeed the many youngsters in the audience, a better world for everyone begins with better dreams.

Jade is unsure what she wants to do with her life, but the characters all agree you can be whatever you want to be and everyone can be fantastic.

The result is a fun show guaranteed to tell you something you didn’t know and introduce you to some people, all women, who really did change the world just that little bit, all proving entertainment can be educational without you even knowing it. Directed by Amy Hodge the fantastically great women will be nudging the world that bit nearer to equality to 10-02-24.

Roger Clarke


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