Following a sold out run at the Edinburgh Festival, the highly anticipated Six the Musicalis now playing at the Arts Theatre in the West End, and it does not disappoint. The 75-minute musical stars the six wives of King Henry VIII as pop stars, where they each share and commiserate over their experiences with the King. Set up like a real pop concert, the actors address the audience, introduce the band, and encourage cheering and dancing. Backed by a female band throughout, the production radiates with 90s inspired girl power. Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s choreography is impressive, and the dancing is such fun to watch. Written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, the music is catchy, and the lyrics are witty and modern. Most importantly, however, the writers have done their history, or rather, “herstory” homework.
Following the opening number “Ex-Wives,” the Queens hit the stage and debate who should be the lead vocalist, sparking a competition for who had it worst. As such, each Queen has a turn in the spotlight to share her story. Like Catherine Parr in the show, I was disappointed in this premise and found it contradictory to the feminist message the show is trying to convey. However, the climax of the production does rectify this problem, as the characters learn not to compete with one another. Nonetheless, the show would have been even more enjoyable to watch had the Queens been supportive of one another from the get go, and the bickering more congenial.
Designed by Gabriella Slade, the Queens are dressed in modern and colourful costumes that cleverly reference the historical period, and they each have their own distinctive style. The numbers generally highlight the characters’ strengths and attempt to make them more relatable. Catherine of Aragon’s (Jarneia Richard-Noel) Beyoncé-inspired “No Way” is especially powerful, proclaiming there’s no way she will leave quietly, while Jane Seymour (Natalie Paris) sings a slow ballad proclaiming her love for Henry. The oft forgotten Anne of Cleves (Alexia McIntosh) focuses on her success after her divorce, having gained her own palace and independence. Katherine Howard’s overly sexualized number soon turns tragic, due to Aimie Atkinson’s nuanced portrayal. As the characters point out in the show, you will always have a favourite Queen, and Anne Boleyn is mine. Perhaps that is why I was especially disappointed in her ditzy characterization. None of Boleyn’s education, wit, or intellect can be seen in the Lily Allen‑esque number, she sings. Nonetheless, “Don’t Lose Ur Head” is a fun song and Millie O’Connell does a great job.
Although the show opens with the famous “Divorced. Beheaded. Died” rhyme, the message the story conveys is much deeper. As Catherine Parr (Maiya Quansah-Breed) notes in her number, “without [Henry] I disappear. We all do.” The show serves as a reminder that too often women are forgotten in history, or are simply relegated to being “background singers” in another man’s story. For instance, Catherine brings up the question who was Henry VI’s or VII’s wife for that matter? Most people don’t know. They remain nameless to the majority. Playing with counterfactual history, the closing number, “Six,” allows the Queens to tell their stories on their own terms, without having to worry about gender and power dynamics, and it is a joyous note to close on. As the show points out, perhaps after all, Henry VIII would be nothing without these six women.
Six the Musical will be playing at the London Arts Theatre until October 14, 2018.
Feature photograph: Idil Sukan