The musical SIX, written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss and directed by Moss and Jamie Armitage, is an 80-minute celebration of 21st-century girl power through the story of the six wives of Henry VIII. In it, Catherine of Aragon (Chloe Hart), Anne Boleyn (Jennifer Caldwell), Jane Seymour (Casey Al-Shaqsy), Anna of Cleves (Aiesha Naomi Pease), Katherine Howard (Jaina Brock-Patel), and Catherine Parr (Alana M Robinson) get to put across their point of view through a glitsy Chicago-esque Cell Block Tango set-up (replace “Pop – Six – Squish – Uh-Uh – Cicero – Lipchitz” with “divorced – beheaded – died – divorced – beheaded – survived).
The show first premiered 5 years ago in a hotel conference room at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival performed by half a dozen student actors and has since then received multiple Olivier award nominations and several gold discs, performed live on Britain’s Got Talent and TikTok and held a flash-mob event in the grounds of the Tower of London. It has also had to weather closing its Broadway production 3 hours before opening night due to covid, a failed attempt at a “drive-thru” version, a truncated ten-day run between Lockdowns 1 and 2 and the aborted first reopening of its tour before finally making its way back this week to the city of its first production, Edinburgh.
The origin of the show dates back to January 2017, when the Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society decided to give over its slot at the Edinburgh fringe to a new piece of work, instead of spending a huge percentage of its budget on the rights to a previously established musical. The idea of creators Marlow and Moss was to take the basic concept of the six wives of Henry VIII but as a music group, with each character taking her “queenspiration” from a different set of popstars, specifically Beyoncé and Shakira for Catherine of Aragon, Lily Allen and Avril Lavigne for Anne Boleyn, Adele and Sia for Jane Seymour, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna for Anna of Cleves, Ariana Grande and Britney Spears for Katherine Howard and Alicia Keys and Emeli Sande for Catherine Parr.
With this they wanted to give each of the six queens’ their own voice (literally and figuratively) as women, separating them from their status as wives, whilst always acknowledging the silliness and campiness of the genre and not taking its message entirely seriously.
This is without a doubt a bit of a tightrope to juggle a mixed metaphor on. Pop music, silliness and camp don’t marry easily (like Henry V) with historical contextualisation and reappraisal. However, the show does manage to mostly pull it off, questioning its own premise at times and giving several of the wives some more melancholic or scary parts within their songs. One wishes this could have been achieved for all of them rather than defaulting to the lighter and more questionable aura of “girl-power”. Was Anna of Cleve being given a castle to live in by the man who didn’t want to be married to her apparently because of her looks really an act of empowerment on her part? Or Katherine Howard’s “seductions” by a succession of older men when she was a teenager? I’m not sure the answer to either of these questions is an emphatic yes.
However, ultimately this is a pop musical not a history dissertation and it is undoubtedly true the show is a lot of fun. The performers (which include not only the six “wives” but also their on-stage backing band The Ladies In Waiting, Jenny Deacon, Vanessa Dominique, Laura Browne and Kat Bax) keep the energy of the show permanently high, the jokes coming, the choreography (by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille and Melody Sinclair) smooth and the vocals powerful. The pop aesthetic is punchily conveyed through the bright and colourful costumes (designed by Gabriella Slade) and simple but flashy (literally, through lightbulbs) set by Emma Bailey and lighting (by Tim Deiling).
The show has the sadly ubiquitous issue of some of the lyrics getting lost behind the instruments (a common fault one hesitates to lay at the feet of designer Paul Gatehouse, particularly on the opening night in a new venue). And this reviewer at least did not find all of the songs as memorable as many of the classics of the genre, but that may be too high a standard, as well as being a subjective view clearly not shared by the legions of fans of the show, many of which came to it through the music rather the materials surrounding it.
A musical designed more for pop fans than history aficionados, this is a show which makes no bones as to this allegiance and knows the shortcomings of its approach. It conveys its messages without ever losing sight of its primary existence as a piece of entertainment. If, as the show tells you, your primary source for the subjects at hand are hazy school memories, you probably won’t come away having learned much, but nor will you have been punished for it. What you will have had is a loud, brash, energising time with a funny show by talented people.
SIX continues at the Festival Theatre until March 26th with further information and tickets at https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/six
Reviewer: Oliver Giggins
Reviewed: 15th March 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★