Mother of monsters

Playwright Chris Bush describes trying to wrangle the biographies of 13 real-life heroines into a 70-minute stage show for children

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“We’ve developed a bit of a monster, but it’s all for the good,” Chris Bush laughs as she tries to describe her stage adaptation of Kate Pankhurst’s children’s book. “As is often the nature of these things it expanded quickly, moving from a modest idea into full-on pop musical territory.”

The production highlights the incredible contributions 13 female artists, scientists, activists and visionaries have given the modern world. Frida Kahlo sits alongside Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart next to Marie Curie, Coco Chanel next to Emmeline Pankhurst – a distant relative of the author.

Charged with turning a collection of concise biographies into a coherent, entertaining musical stage production, Bush began to work alongside songwriter Miranda Cooper, who lists Kylie Minogue and Girls Aloud among previous clients. The resultant play pivots around Jade, a girl who finds herself enduring problems at home. On a school museum trip, she separates from her classmates in the Gallery of Greatness and winds up in the company of the titular, epoch-making women, each offering advice and suggesting solutions to her current troubles.

“Obviously all the people we talk about had long and complex lives which we can’t fully cover in a 70 minute show,” says Bush. “But the drama that follows us throughout centres around how these women can help and inspire Jade and hopefully that, in turn, will inspire the kids in the audience as well.”

The baker’s dozen of starring heroines are played by a quartet of adult actors, protagonist Jade by a rotating cast of four children – Fayth Ifil, Kayleen Nguema, Eva-Marie Saffrey and Nielle Springer. Initially Bush and director Amy Hodge considered using another adult to play the young Jade – to ease problems presented by the time constraints on children’s working schedules – but the dramatist is delighted they instead opted to cast youngsters to fill the role. “They bring such a vitality and honesty to the stage so now I can’t imagine doing it any other way.”

Does the playwright have any favourites among the luminaries in Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World?

“I know I shouldn’t really be pitting people against one another as they’re all incredible women but, well, I do have a lot of love for Frida,” she admits with a laugh. “She’s such an absolute icon for me, not just for her work but for her personality, which is something we tried to make really shine through during this show. She had a difficult life, in many respects, but ended up producing such incredible, rich, vibrant personal art.”

As for more current heroines who missed the cut in Pankhurst’s 2016 book, are there any who Bush wishes were included?

“We got a passing reference to Greta Thunberg in there but obviously there’s always a new generation of incredible women coming along. One of the messages we wanted to get across was that the women in the show are really only the tip of the iceberg and amazing women aren’t simply these historical figures; they’re everywhere! That’s a really important point and we wanted to hammer that home.”

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World is at Liverpool Playhouse, 8 Dec to 2 Jan 2022

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