“What’s a suffragette?” asks my niece, Eva, on the way to this musical adaptation of Kate Pankhurst’s picture book. The older niece, Martha, is pre-adolescent and in no mood to explain terms to her six-year-old sister. I summarise 20th-century gender inequality (“That’s so rude”) but it is harder to convey the meaning of governance and suffrage.
Chris Bush’s adaptation does a fantastically great job of explaining it, beginning as a schoolgirl, Jade (Kudzai Mangombe), wanders into a museum wing in which the great women of history come alive to sing, dance, wisecrack, and become life coaches, of sorts, to the troubled Jade. Ten minutes in, Amelia Earhart (Renée Lamb) has zoomed in wearing pilot goggles and Gertrude Ederle pops out of a box to tell us of her cross-Channel swim. Both talk about overcoming odds to do the thing you want to do in life – “the best way to do it is just to do it”. Eva taps me to add her thoughts: “Arifa, I like it.”
Directed by Amy Hodge, this is a high-voltage show with great charisma. The songs are full of clever wit (lyrics by Bush and Miranda Cooper) and the pop beat gets all our feet tapping (music by Cooper and Jennifer Decilveo), while there is the added headiness of strobe lights (designed by Zoe Spurr), witty choreography (by Danielle Lecointe), and a live three-piece band who sit above the stage in luminous cubicles.
A comically prissy Jane Austen (Christina Modestou) springs out of another box and I see Martha cracking a smile. When Emmeline Pankhurst (Kirstie Skivington) marches on in a purple military uniform with silver tassels and starts singing “Deeds Not Words” the girls join the audience’s chorus chant.
The song Mary, Mary and Marie features Mary Secole (Lamb), Mary Anning (Christina Modestou) and Marie Curie (Elise Zavou) as superheroes, and they set Eva alight, not least because she learned about two out of them in Year One, lei dice. Frida Kahlo (Zavou) sings about her love of art: “Find joy first, talent will follow.” Both girls tell me afterwards that this is their favourite moment. Even my inner cynic has been banished and I’m as lit up and absorbed as they are. I glance at their mother, Maria, who has come along too, and she is rapt.
Ordinarily, a production built on a simplistic “smash the patriarchy” brand of empowerment would leave me cold but this is not that. It is certainly feel-good but surprisingly nuanced. Pankhurst’s definition of suffrage acknowledges the class privilege of the first tranche of women permitted the vote and the show as a whole is thoroughly diverse.
By the time Rosa Parks (Lamb) comes on in the final scene (“so what colour am I?” asks Eva, when her mother gives her a quick whispered lesson on the civil rights movement), I have a lump in my throat and Mary is moved too. We are watching the production on the same day as Roe v Wade is overturned and it feels especially significant – and necessary – to be reminded of the strides that women have made.
The girls, afterwards, are pumped up and want to buy glittery brooches with messages from the show such as: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” Mary is just as inspired. “Why isn’t this in the West End?" lei dice. Non lo so, I reply, but it really ought to be.