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Stratford: Discover Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World

New show at Theatre Royal Stratford East hails female role-models and stars Christina Modestou

Christina Modeastou as Jane Austen, right
Christina Modestou as Jane Austen, right

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

The 1990s may be back in style, but thankfully Girl Power never went out of fashion.

It has been given an empowering new spin in musical Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, which is set to run at Theatre Royal Stratford East from June 15-July 17, 2022.

Based on a book by Suffragette descendant Kate Pankhurst, it celebrates often forgotten women from history such as Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, Frida Kahlo, Jane Austen and Pankhurst’s own relative Emmeline, all seen through the eyes of inquisitive schoolgirl Jade.

They are brought to life by an all-female cast and a creative crew who have worked with the likes of Girls Aloud, Kylie Minogue,  Miley Cyrus and Beverley Knight.

We asked part-Welsh, part-Greek star of the show Christina Modestou to tell us about the fantastic women who have inspired her.

the matriarch

My mum Lula is one of the biggest role models in my life. She has always been 100% behind me with anything I wanted to try as a child and critiqued me in a healthy way. 

My mum was a hairdresser and she loved her job – having a parent who loves what they do really rubbed off on me.

I used to go and help on a Saturday and witness it first-hand. Looking back, I see how everyone there encouraged me.

I used to write stories and act things out as customers were waiting for their perms to set. It was one of the customers who said I should go to a drama class as it made me really happy.

the teachers

I started classes with Irene Hopkins when I was five. She was my first singing teacher and had a massive impact on me. 

She had this wonderful knack for bringing out your best qualities and encouraging you to flourish in what you were good at.

I never liked classical music, I always found passion in pop and jazzy sounds. 

Instead of putting me in a box I didn’t want to be in, she stretched me, found my flair and leaned into that. She didn’t try to mould me into anyone else. 

She still comes to see every show I do and will send me a card. There’s still that level of support.

My dance teacher Jackie Bristow was also pivotal. I honestly don’t think I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for her

Star Christina Modeastou
Star Christina Modestou


the character

My claim to fame is being in the choir scene in Love Actually and the year I graduated I did We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre. 

But the pivotal role in my career was playing Nina in In The Heights at Southwark Playhouse.

That was an experience I still hold very dear. She comes from a working-class community and goes away to university but, in trying to work and learn, she has to drop out because her grades are slipping and she has to go home and tell her family she has failed. 

It’s something quite common in our industry. People say you’ve got talent and put you on a bit of a pedestal and the thought that going home is a failure is hard. Exploring that was really exciting.

the fantastic women

This show has a really special place in my heart because I wish I had seen something like this growing up. 

In musicals there are historically four types of women – the unrequited love interest, the princess, the matriarch and the whore. Even in Les Miserables, that’s how women are portrayed. 

In our musical, we get to show who women are without men and be silly and funny, serious, loud, quiet, sensitive and strong – so many different things. I was asked to audition after I played Anne Boleyn in the original cast of Six.

I have been involved since the original workshops and it’s been amazing to see how it has snowballed. It’s a very physical show and you are representing real women.

Christina as Gertrude Ederle, in red
Christina as Gertrude Ederle, in red


the brawn

I play Gertrude Ederle, who was the first woman to swim the English Channel and broke the world record. I didn’t know her story but she is incredible. She had measles as a child and by her 40s was almost deaf. 

She taught swimming to deaf children and, when she noticed people were drowning, she helped open pools in poor areas so people could learn to swim.

She was as strong as a man, won gold at the Olympics as part of the first female swimming team and invented the two-piece bathing suit.

I admire her strength and resilience and warmth. She was unapologetic about what she could achieve and was always helping others.

the wit

Most people know Jane Austen. I love playing her in this show because she comes back around the age she died, in her early 40s and befriends Frida Kahlo. 

They are chalk and cheese but give each other a wonderful platform. The thing that impresses me most is her wit. She was such an observer and wrote characters and comedy so well.

the intellect

Mary Anning was an English fossil collector and palaeontologist who discovered the ichthyosaur when she was twelve years old and uncovered skeletons of the plesiosaur, pterosaur and lots of other key things. 

I get the impression she lived a very hard life. She got struck by lightning as a baby and everyone else near her died.

She was one of 10 children, but only she and one other made it to maturity. She also lost her work to men, who didn’t give her credit for her discoveries. 

There is a real isolated sadness to her, which I find fascinating.

I think she homed in on the joy in her work. In the musical, we meet her with Mary Seacole and Marie Curie and they become this superhero trio.

So she has learnt how to work as a team in our world, which has a magical vibe as if all these women had come back to life.

Christina as Mary Anning, left
Christina as Mary Anning, left

the co-stars

I have never been in a rehearsal room with so many women. Doing this show has been a real collaboration and we have had some amazing discussions about gender, diversity, and disabilities. 

I’ve never experienced a room as open as this and it has opened my eyes to a lot of bias I didn’t know about. 

It is also about the fact feminism isn’t about women being better than men, it’s about being fair.

We don’t want the young men in the audience to feel they should be controlled by women. We want them to be inspired by these women. Feminism isn’t about vengeance. 

Shows like Emilia, with an all-female cast, have paved the way for this. In that, women play men, which is something we rarely see. It’s bonkers, because men play women all the time – in panto and on stage. 

In Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World, we see these icons through the eyes of a young woman of colour and that is wonderful.

We wanted to make sure there was diversity – as we tour the show we want to make sure as many children are represented as possible.

the body

It’s not just about representing ethnicity, it’s about body shape. The first time I saw a body I recognised as being like mine was in Mad Men. I saw Christina Hendricks and was like: “Oh my god, finally, a curvy woman”.

I have to wear a unitard in this show, which was quite exposing for me, but the power of going out there knowing I can be a size 12 or 14 and be proud of it and hopefully inspire others, is unexplainable.

Often I get told I don’t look Welsh enough. I sit right in the middle of a lot of categories. I’m Welsh but with a Greek Cypriot background.

I’m not young, old, tall, short, thin or fat. I once got told I wouldn’t have a career until I’m older as I didn’t fit a category and I thought: “Screw that”.

the stars

I would love to work with Olivia Colman, Phoebe Waller-Bridge or Emma Thompson. Jenna Russell is amazing and I would work with her again and again. 

We did Urinetown together at The Apollo and then I managed to put on a cabaret at Southwark Playhouse during the pandemic and she did that with me too.

She is a class act. I admire people who put the work first and are selfless enough to tell the story which sometimes means giving up your moment to shine. That’s what inspires me.

herself

Someone asked us in a Q&A who we would be if we could be any women for a day and my colleague, Jade, said: “I would be me”. What a cool thing to feel – that you just want to be you and no-one else.

Read more: Discover the denim-based art of Poplar’s Ian Berry

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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Royal Docks: How The PA Show trains and serves executive support professionals

We catch up with organiser Mash Media to understand the Excel event’s highlights

The PA Show takes place at Excel from March 8-9, 2022
The PA Show takes place at Excel from March 8-9, 2022

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Executive support is what Liz Agostini is here to talk about.

The portfolio director at Mash Media, which is set to host The PA Show at Excel in Royal Docks on March 8 and 9, is quick to point out that the event is a larger umbrella than its name might suggest.

“It’s for personal assistants, executive assistants, virtual assistants and office managers – it has really broad appeal,” she said.

If anything, that’s a bit of an understatement. Spread over the two days, thousands of visitors will be able to attend dozens of seminar sessions, listen to dozens of speakers and interact with more than 100 exhibitors.

In addition to a theatre for keynote speeches the show will feature a Key Skills Theatre, a Personal Development Theatre and a Tech Theatre with a packed programme of trainers and industry experts.

It will also host the Office Management Conference with discussions on topics such as project managing office moves, supporting a positive culture in the workplace and engaging staff in sustainability.

“Whether you’re working as a PA, EA, VA or office manager, or considering a career in an executive support role, this show is definitely the place to be,” said Liz.

“There are several ways to attend, with a free visitor pass granting access to the Keynote Theatre and the exhibition floor.

“As a business, we’re real advocates for live events – with exhibitions, it’s about touching, feeling and experiencing products and meeting people.

“We’ve all attended webinars and virtual events, but there’s nothing like being in the room with others – humans are social beings, that’s how we’re hard-wired.

“Events like The PA Show also allow for those serendipitous conversations with people you bump into – a chance to build and expand your network.

“Those who don’t want to take part in the paid programme are absolutely welcome to come along.”

Mash Media's Liz Agostini
Mash Media’s Liz Agostini – image Matt Grayson

Delegate passes – £149 for one day or £169 for both (get 10% off with code PA2216) – not only include entry to the office management conference and all of the theatres, they also unlock Planet PA post-show video content, access to premium suppliers and the option to use The PA Show networking app.

Liz said: “One of the key things about the event is that the educational aspect is absolutely stand-out.

“The whole programme is CPD accredited and the other thing that makes it outstanding is that, within the paid-for programmes, all the people delivering the training are seriously qualified in the area of executive support.

“To go on a day of training with any of these people would normally cost hundreds of pounds on its own.

“At the show what you get is a substantial taster of what they offer. That means you can attend lots of different sessions, see what they are doing and know what you’re in for if you were to book a course with them.

“We cover all sorts of different areas, so it’s a buffet of education – people can choose what they want to attend at the theatres over the two days.”

The PA Show features a number of expert speakers and trainers
The PA Show features a number of expert speakers and trainers

The roster of speakers and trainers includes Lauren Bradley of The Officials, Shelley Fischel of Tomorrow’s VA, Joanna Gaudoin of Inside Out Image, Paula Harding of The Meee Partnership, Kay Lundy of The Expert Admin Coach, Rosemary Parr of the Global PA Association And Training Academy, Paul Pennant of Today’s PA and Lindsay Taylor of Your Excellency.

Liz said: “We’re working with people who are at the absolute top of their game in terms of the PA world – the cornerstones of the training market.

“Outsiders often greatly underestimate the importance of executive support roles.

“But when you sit down with people working in this field and really take time to understand what their jobs entail, it’s absolutely mind-blowing.

“The roles are so varied and strategic – these people are partners for the executives they support. 

“They often have to participate in all aspects of an organisation whether that’s finance, marketing, employment, corporate governance, human resources and sustainability issues. Their remit is absolutely massive.

“I spoke to one PA who answers 90% of her boss’ email as him. Her understanding of the business has to be as good as his.

“That’s why a lot of EAs and PAs move into critical roles within organisations – because of their knowledge of the business they work for.

“I know PAs who have gone into underwriting, stockbroking and mergers and acquisitions. 

“At the top level you need to know how the business works and that’s about a million miles away from the stereotype of getting an executive’s clothes dry-cleaned for them.”

The event is now in its 11th year
The event is now in its 11th year

New for its 11th year is the collaboration with the Office Management Group, bringing the conference into the show’s stable.

“That’s an entirely new stream of content that we’re putting out,” said Liz.

“It covers areas such as facilities and office management and, what’s particularly relevant about that right now, is that so many businesses are focused on bringing their staff back into the office, doing that safely and establishing how they create the right office environment in 2022 and beyond.

“Regardless of how many staff they have in the office in person, businesses are conducting both internal and external meetings virtually, so what kind of facilities do you need to have in place? If people are working remotely, how do you keep everyone connected?

“That might cover questions around scheduling if people are working more flexibly – for example, how do you make sure project teams are running efficiently if participants are only in on certain days?

“Because the whole subject of technology in business is so important we’ve introduced the Tech Theatre to The PA Show this year too and that’s focusing on a whole raft of tools that are now available, not just the Microsoft and Google toolkits.”

PAs, EAs, VAs and office managers are welcome to attend for free
PAs, EAs, VAs and office managers are welcome to attend for free

Liz said for businesses wanting to reach the spending power of executive support professionals, exhibiting at the show was a “no-brainer”.

She said: “Nothing beats the personal touch and the budgets people in these roles have access to are significant.

“Our campaign for the show this year focused on PAs and EAs as the power behind the throne – exhibitors need to come along to make sure they are aware of your products, otherwise you’re just leaving them to search the internet, where it’s much harder to stand out.”

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Canning Town: How Wonderful Things hooks Yoga up with co-working

Space at Caxton Works is neighbour and sister company to Keyboards And Dreams

Wonderful Things' space in Canning Town
Wonderful Things’ space in Canning Town – image Matt Grayson

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

A new space that embraces the increasingly blurry lines between home, work and wellbeing is about to emerge in Canning Town.

Wonderful Things will offer traditional Yoga and meditation classes alongside sessions such as sound healing, moon ceremonies and ecstatic dance.

Inspired by the autonomy of co-working spaces, it promises to shun rigid schedules and memberships and instead mould itself around the needs of teachers and students to create a sanctuary from stress.

Set to open in March at Caxton Works, general manager Sean Reilly said it was a “beautiful but no-frills” space run with a laid back philosophy.

The 27-year-old, who is a trained hypnotherapist, has spent weeks talking to therapists and Yoga teachers about what they need.

“People are looking for a space that’s super simple where they can just walk in, no faff, start their class and they know where everything is,” she said.

“They want to know they are in a space that is safe, that they can relax and nothing is going to go wrong so they have peace of mind and don’t need to worry about a thing.

“Creating that is our sole focus now, so we can slip into people’s lives as if we have always been there and they can just click and book and it’s done.”

Sean Reilly of Wonderful Things
Sean Reilly of Wonderful Things – image Matt Grayson

She turned to the wellness industry after becoming disillusioned with her hospitality job during lockdown.

“During the pandemic, there was a drastic change and it came to a point where I was doing 12-hour shifts by myself, back-to-back, which wasn’t good for my brain,” she said.

“The Deliveroo drivers and I were best friends. I loved hospitality because I love talking to people and it lost the magic for me a little bit.”

Despite no office experience, she landed a role at Keyboards And Dreams, a co-working company set up by Jonathan Fren with sites in Clerkenwell and Caxton Works. 

They quickly discovered a shared passion for wellbeing and have been working together to create Wonderful Things in the unit next door.

The 150sq m space offers 24 Yoga mats as well as straps, blocks, blankets and pillows.

There is also a changing area, kitchen and a dedicated street entrance, which will be accessible via a mobile app.

It is a new direction for entrepreneur Jonathan but a natural one.

The 32-year-old started out in tech as a teen, but a decade later shut down successful web company Rebel Minds after it grew into something he hated.

He went travelling and began renting out the central London office space he had acquired and Keyboard And Dreams was born.

He launched his second space in Canning Town in November 2020, after he fell in love with the area and then jumped at the chance to start another business at the development.

Entrepreneur Jonathan Fren
Entrepreneur Jonathan Fren

“I took this new space on a year ago without even having an idea of what to do with it because I just really believe in that area,” he said.

“I’ve always wanted to do something in wellness but hadn’t crystallised the idea.

“For the past year I’ve been living in the countryside and my girlfriend is a Yoga teacher, so I’ve been doing a lot of that and meditation and it just clicked at some point that I wanted to create a space in London where people can go and just be with themselves. 

“Now, more than ever I think it’s really important that spaces have more than just offices. A lot of spaces in London are made by people with lots of money and that’s all it’s about, especially with a lot of gyms.

“We want Wonderful Things to be warm and inviting, but it will really be about creating a space where people can discover themselves.

“When I go to London one thing I miss is being in a silent room where I don’t feel I’m being watched or have to talk. I want Wonderful Things to be that safe space.”

Jonathan never returned from his travels. He now lives in Portugal, managing both businesses remotely with Lewisham resident Sean on-site.

In addition to being a hypnotherapist, she is studying psychotherapy and hopes to see clients at Wonderful Things in the future.

Yoga mats ready for use at Wonderful Things
Yoga mats ready for use at Wonderful Things – image Matt Grayson

She said: “When I first met Jon I told him my idea of the perfect space and he told me about this project and asked if I wanted to be involved. I knew it was where I was meant to be. It worked out perfectly.

“There are so many brilliant therapists looking for affordable spaces to use. Renting a space can be extortionate, so you have to do a joint contract where one person uses it one day and another person another. 

“It’s always complicated. You want the focus to be on your clients’ wellbeing, but you spend half the time worrying about whether you can afford the rent.

“We said it would be great to have an all-round well-being hub and make it the kind of space we would want to go to.

“Hopefully, if it goes well over the next year, we will open the mezzanine space with meditation spaces and break out spaces where people can be alone with their thoughts or have therapy sessions.”

Classes will “start with a trickle and turn into a flood” with a schedule being developed over time, but room will also be left for ad hoc events. Teachers will pay a set price to use the space and then be responsible for promoting their classes and deciding ticket prices.

“There’s nothing in the area that really has the same vibe,” said Sean. “We are very relaxed and if you need anything you can just talk to us.

“It’s open to anyone who wants to be there because the space is so adaptable. It isn’t going to be the right fit for everyone.

“If you are looking for a big, mainstream space, this isn’t that. 

“Our space is beautiful but has no frills and is all about welcoming people. If that works for your idea in your mind then please come down.”

The space can be used for a multitude of activities
The space can be used for a multitude of activities – image Matt Grayson

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East London: East End Community Foundation’s unveils Life Chances drive

Charity seeks to raise £5million to tackle issues in Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Newham and the City

East End Community Foundation chair Bronek Masojada – image Matt Grayson

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“When I was approached about joining the East End Community Foundation, I thought it answered a problem that I’d had as a CEO,” said Bronek Masojada, who has spent the last 28 years at the helm of insurance firm Hiscox.

“There is a lot of desire among staff at companies to get involved in charitable activities close to where they work and that’s great, but the question then is what, precisely?

“The answer to that question is a navigation service for organisations that identifies what those needs are, which are the most effective charities to support and how to make sure any donation is put to good use.

“I’m not going to pretend to understand what the needs of individuals are in deprived areas – nor do my colleagues.

“That navigation service also needs to show how staff can be involved to a limited extent because, from my experience people’s desire to play a part is much greater than the reality when dates are in the diary and free time and weekends have to be given up to do that. 

“The EECF provides a service that addresses all those issues, for anybody who would like to try to make a difference – a clear solution to a clear problem.

“The fact it also gives away a substantial amount of its own money every year means the team has every incentive to make sure it is done so effectively.”

Bronek joins EECF as chair, having taken over from Canary Wharf Group’s Howard Dawber towards the end of last year, his arrival coinciding with the launch of the charity’s Life Chances Campaign to raise and distribute £5million to help deprived communities in east London recover from the effects of the pandemic.

The money will be distributed to organisations in Tower Hamlets, Newham, Hackney and the City with the three aims of improving the wellbeing and employment prospects of young people, tackling digital exclusion and reducing poverty and isolation among older people. Pledges of £750,000 have already been made.

Bronek said: “About £2.5million will go on the first of these, about £1million on the last and the balance on digital connectivity.

These areas all slightly overlap – what drives elderly isolation is lack of digital connectivity in today’s age, not just access to things like iPads, but the competency to use them.

“It’s not just about giving people a bit of kit, but also providing support.

“My mother and my mother-in-law in South Africa are both big silver surfers, because they are driven to enjoy connectivity with their children and grandchildren, and that’s fantastic.

“My mother has been self-isolating, but probably speaks to my children more often than me, through digital means.

“It will be the same for people in east London – if you can’t get out because of Covid, you should still be able to connect with people.

“Zoom and other platforms are free, if you know how to use them. There is some reticence.

“I can remember when I put my grandmother in front of a Space Invaders game,  she just froze, but nowadays you don’t have that choice.

“Life Chances is trying to address real needs. The average salary in Tower Hamlets is £80,000 a year but the average household income is £25,000. That’s understandable, but pretty extraordinary when you think about it.

“What we’re trying to do is to appeal to the people and the firms that employ them in the area to help those who are resident locally.

“I recently read youth unemployment in London is four times the national average and Life Chances is about helping people into work.

“Not everyone’s going to be an investment banker – I get that – but firms like Hiscox and employers in Canary Wharf need a huge range of skills and capabilities.

“Clearly good educational achievements make things easier, but even for those who don’t have them we can make a real difference by helping them get entry-level jobs.

“I have friends in the insurance industry who grew up within earshot of Bow Bells, but who have done unbelievably well.

“These companies do offer people who are smart, even partly educated, the ability to rise through the ranks and that’s what they want.

“It was a surprise to learn about the disparity between income versus household income. It’s pretty apparent if you travel through the four boroughs and listen to what’s going on. 

“I was also surprised when the EECF’s CEO, Tracey Walsh, told me there were 5,000 charities and community groups active in those areas – that gives you a sense of the size of the challenge and the need for navigation.

“If there’s a corporate wanting to get involved, how do you find and pick an organisation to support? Which are effective and which make a difference?

“Often that choice is made because of individual connections, partners or friends, but to my mind that’s not the best way to choose a charity.

“The EECF applies rigour – groups have to apply for grants. They have to explain what their outcomes are going to be and then assess whether their aims were achieved or not. That’s a powerful process.

“The other thing about the EECF is that some of the grants are quite small in monetary terms – £2,000 or £5,000, for example – but they can make a real difference to a particular community group or charity.

“It’s hard for big companies, who might want to give say £50,000 – which is the top level we ask organisations to commit to – and to then break that down into grants themselves. Hiscox, for example, wouldn’t be able to do that.

“EECF is a well respected organisation. It’s seen as independent, fair and transparent and those are great things to build on. It has its own money to give away and full credit to Howard and Tracey for building that up. 

“My ambition is to continue the work they and the other trustees have been doing for many years and make the Life Chances Campaign a success.

“We don’t need a revolution – there’s a very clear plan of how we can make a difference and improve people’s lives.

“It’s a good programme and, if we can just deliver on that, then that’s a job well done.

“The more successful we are with Life Chances, the more we may have to increase staff numbers and so on, but that’s an outcome rather than a goal.

“I think that the other thing we’d like to move to with the campaign is to say to those getting grants that we’ll give them a certain amount each year for the next three years, so they can plan rather than having to put their energies into constant fundraising.

“An ambition has also got to be to augment the million or so we give away every year.

“If we can get to the £2million mark every year for the next five, that would be pretty awesome.”

For Bronek, the decision to become chair of EECF follows on from a long line of extramural activities undertaken while working at Hiscox, including the position of deputy chairman of Lloyds Of London for seven years.

“I’ve always thought that a business and a person succeeds if they are involved in more than one thing,” he said. 

“The beach is really very nice to relax on, but you have to have something to relax from – when you’re there all the time, it’s no longer relaxing.

“I feel the idea of stopping work and allowing the skills and knowledge that I’ve managed to accumulate to dissipate would be a waste. My hope is I can use them instead to make a beneficial and positive impact on the wider community.

“In terms of the difference I can make, clearly there’s the day-to-day governance of the organisation and I’ve had a fair experience of that.

“Hiscox was a lot smaller when I started there in 1992 and I’m used to us going into new countries, opening offices with no staff and then, slowly, over a decade building a physical presence and a good business.

“The fact that EECF has a dozen staff is really great, because it’s small, it’s informal – you don’t manage an organisation like that the way you manage a UK business like Hiscox, which employs well over 1,000 people.

“I also have a reasonable address book and I’m not scared to go and ask people for things, so I can help the team with the opening doors part of fundraising.

“They then have to close the deal, but I know that the hardest thing when you’re raising money is knowing who to talk to and then actually getting to speak to them.

“Even if they say no, that’s better than not talking to them, because you’re building awareness.

“Of course, there’s no certainty that we will succeed with the campaign, but it’s my view that it’s always better to try and to fail rather than not to try at all.”

Organisations that would like to support the Life Chances Campaign or charities and community groups interested in applying for EECF grants can find out more at the foundation’s website.

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