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Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World: The Musical

By Kathrina Perry

Interview with Frances Mayli McCann

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World is a new musical based on the book by Kate Pankhurst, a descendant of Emmeline Pankhurst, adapted by Chris Bush (Nine Lessons and Carols, Almeida Theatre) and Miranda Cooper (songwriter for Girls Aloud and the Sugababes) with music by Jennifer Decilveo (Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus).

I was lucky enough to interview one of the cast, Frances Mayli McCann, who plays Emmeline Pankhurst and Agent Fifi in the production.

Can you tell us what the show is about?

The show itself follows the story of Jade, who is in year 6 at school, and they take a school trip to the museum. Jade wanders off to a wing that is under development and finds herself looking for an adventure. While she’s in this wing of ‘Fantastically great women throughout history’ the characters reveal themselves to her and tell their stories to Jade and help her find her way.

Tell us a bit about the roles you play.

Aside from Jade, who is the main lead in the show, there are four adult actors in the company and we all multi-role, so I play Emmeline Pankhurst, Agent Fifi and Jade’s teacher Miss Johnson. The other women featured are Sacagawea, Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Mary Seacole, Gertrude Ederle, Jane Austen, Mary Anning, Anne Frank.

Why do you think it is important to bring women’s history to the theatre and how do you think this show helps?

Although it’s aimed at kids, I think it’s for everyone. When I first picked up this script and read it for the first time, there were some characters that I knew very little of or hadn’t even heard of because we don’t get taught – well I never got taught it in school. You get taught a lot about men and the men in history and what they’ve done. I knew about Marie Curie because obviously the charity but someone like Mary Seacole I hadn’t heard of her before now. So I think it’s really important to educate everyone on these women throughout history and how they contributed to the world today and how it still affects every day life now.

Six The Musical is also contributing to women’s history in the theatre, but it is centred around one man and his wives, whereas this production is going across various timelines and different periods of history, including some quite recent.

I’ve learnt a lot just over the last four weeks of rehearsals so hopefully that translates on stage. I love how Chris (Bush) who has adapted the book into the play has made the stories of women who wouldn’t have crossed in real time combined them. So you have Amelia Earhart and Sacagawea, who would never have met in real time doing a scene together and they know each other and are friends in this after life. And then Emmeline Pankhurst pops in and speaks to them as well! And it’s cool how their relationships are built within the story. It’s like a celebration and helping Jade.

Jade represents everyone that is living now that’s watching now and can speak to them by saying “Follow Your Dreams. If you want to achieve something then go for it”. It’s not like Six where they have like a competition – with this there’s no competitiveness.

You play Emmeline Pankhurst: what do you think the Pankhurst legacy is?

The legacy is in the show being based on Kate Pankhurst’s book. The name is in there. It’s kind of incredible being able to portray her. I wouldn’t say that we are playing these women but I would say that we are an essence of them. I get the chance to play something that I would never normally get to do and take an essence of what she represents and get to play that on stage. One of the lines that she has in the show is “the road to equality isn’t over and it’s a long one”. We’re going back to 1900, and it’s still a fight today, so I think that is a really stand out line and what she started is still an ongoing battle. I think that’s really important and powerful.

Do you think there are comparisons between the suffragettes and today’s movements involving women e.g. WASPI women and the #MeToo movement?

I’d like to think that because they weren’t taken seriously back then. That’s why they had to resort to “deeds not words” and take action and violence. Now, I’d like to think that women have a voice but then when you look more deeper into it, for example, with the #MeToo movement, those incidents happened so long ago that women have had to stay silent about it because of the power dynamic. So things are changing but not at a great pace considering how long ago Emmeline Pankhurst was around.  It’s sad in a way but at least things are going in the right direction.

Did any part of the characters you play resonate with yourself?

There’s a bit of all the characters in me and because, as I say, it’s an essence of these characters, all the women in the show are bad ass, there’s no denying they are all amazing and fantastic. But Emmeline Pankhurst was just fierce and to have the guts to do what she did in that time, a little bit of that embeds in you and that’s what I want to take away from this show and that’s what we want the audience to take away to, to empower them.

Agent Fifi is polar opposite to Emmeline Pankhurst, and because she was a super spy and seductive and plays on that. I get to really have fun with playing them both completely different. And you can’t find a lot about Fifi, because she was a master of disguise. No one has the answers of who they were and what they were really like. Its’ fun having a bit of an imagination especially with Fifi because you can just transform into whoever.

Did you have to do any research into your characters before you started the role?

Definitely. You can’t wing it because they are real people, and you don’t want to either because you want to respect these women what they did and do them justice so we did a lot of research. But what was really lovely and helpful, the young cast, the girls that play Jade, started a week before us and had a week of learning, and made big posters on each of the characters, made a timeline, pictures and everything. When the adult cast started, they gave us a presentation on everyone and it was really amazing to learn from their perspective on top of our own research. and but then to have that bonding experience with everyone and talk about these women collectively.

Obviously the book gives a good starter to go “oh that’s so and so and they did that” and you can then look into them further and it’s a good taster of everyone.  It’s like a history lesson but not a boring history where you don’t want to pay attention. It’s bright and colourful and it does embrace you.

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World will be on tour in theatres in Southampton, Norwich, Liverpool, Aylesbury and Chichester from 6th November 2021 to 16th January 2022.

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