Henry VIII's famous succession of six wives form the basis for this feminist, satirical and thrilling musical peopled by pop princesses...
“My name’s Catherine of Aragon.
Was married 24 years, I’m a paragon
Of royalty, my loyalty is to the Vatican
So if you try to dump me you won’t try that again”
Catherine of Aragon, from the song – “Ex-Wives”
Note: This review was written in September 2018 when we only had an inkling of the phenomenal success that was in store for Six with an opening on Broadway only scuppered by Coronavirus, national tours and even cruise ship performances.
It is true isn’t it that Henry VIII is best known for the number of his wives, rather than the achievements of his reign, both politically and culturally? OK, maybe the English Reformation also figures but that was brought about by the inability of the Vatican to grant Henry an annulment to his marriage to his dead brother Arthur’s wife.
I first came across Tudor history at A level at school and later, I lived and worked in Greenwich where Henry’s favourite Tudor palace was sited. I used to give tours to international students at the university, and the public, of the site of the Old Royal Naval College where Henry VIII and all three of his children were born. Under the car park next to Queen Anne Court (named for the Stuart queen, Anne) in the 2000s they found the remains of the Chapel Royal, where Henry had married the ill fated Anne Boleyn.
On nearby Blackheath, Henry officially met his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves for the first time, the marriage having been agreed on the strength of a portrait by Hans Holbein. Henry took one look and apocryphally declared she was a “Flemish mare”. For the international students I used the comparison that it was as if you were internet dating, and when you met the person, they didn’t look as beautiful as their JPEG. I left a generation of international students thinking that Henry VIII had met Anne of Cleves on the internet.
Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, who met at the University of Cambridge, have written Six a 75 minute musical that runs like an exciting revival of “the Spice Girls” only better, wittier and with much accurate historical information. The new perspective is created out of the importance of Henry’s wives from a feminist point of view, but with a production that is styled like a pop concert.
The wives are dressed in a cabaret style spangled Tudor costume with Tudor type bodices and sleeves but with skirts that are little more than a peplum, with lots of leg on show which frees them up for the sexy dancing. The pop band is all female and led by Musical Director Katy Richardson. The lighting is exciting as is the dance.
Each wife has her own song with its pop artist’s “Queenspiration”: from Beyoncé to Adele, Rihanna, Ariana Grande to Britney Spears, they compete to be voted the most hard done by of Henry’s wives. The lyrics are full of wit and there is at least some truth in the historical interpretation of most of the wives.
Catherine of Aragon (Jarneia Richard-Noel) kicks off, married for 24 years and too well connected to European Royals to be bumped off. Her surviving child was Mary Tudor, the queen who reversed the English Reformation. Richard-Noel has tons of commanding attitude for the Spanish princess and it is her ideas about the King’s whore, Anne Boleyn (Millie O’Connell) whom Catherine blames for the end of her marriage to Henry, that forms the characterisation of the Boleyn girl.
True Anne suffers in the historical accuracy department with only her whore status and hanging out for marriage emphasised. Ignored is any interest in Protestantism. But Millie O’Connell is 100% personality as she brings to life the airhead, pretty Anne, the sexy hip girl with the Essex accent who is getting daily text messages from Henry. The sadness of Anne’s miscarriages is only briefly touched on but we are frequently reminded how she lost her head but not that she was the mother of a great Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, who lost her mother when she was two and a half.
The pious Jane Seymour (Natalie Paris) is characterised as “the only one he truly loved” and dying on the birth of her son Edward, whose sickly condition is ignored in Six. Henry married her 11 days after Anne’s execution on Tower Green. Jane’s song “Heart of Stone” is a beautiful ballad inspired by Adele and Sia.
Those three cover “Divorced, Beheaded, Died” and the second three are “Divorced, Beheaded, Survived”. Fourth wife Anne of Cleves (Alexia McIntosh) is emphasised as a German duchess who got a very good settlement after the “Haus of Holbein” embellished her “profile picture” and Anne lived out her life in rather beautiful palaces, in Richmond and Hever Castle. Her song “Get Down” emphasises her generous settlement but the annulment was easy considering Henry never took to her, and with her European relatives and allies on side. Alexia has great stage presence.
Katherine Howard (Aimie Atkinson) is an eye catching queen who was arrested sixteen months into her marriage with 48 year old Henry when she was aged approximately 17. She was kept under arrest until the law was changed to allow Henry to charge her with treason for becoming the King’s wife without “plain declaration before of her unchaste life”. Aimie Atkinson rules the stage as Katherine, a mischievous sexy young woman in a Britney inspired song “All You Wanna Do” with its explicit lyrics listing her past loves.
Finally, the twice widowed Catherine Parr (Maiya Quansah-Breed) outlives Henry now in his dotage. Her song, “I Don’t Need Your Love” has less dramatic material and less interest from the most mundane of his wives. My favourites were the two who lost their heads, vivacious Millie O’Connell as Anne Boleyn and foxy Aimie Atkinson as Anne’s cousin Katherine Howard.
The show finishes on “Six” with an exciting reprise from each queen. The sassy choreography is almost as important as the music and is wonderfully received by the audience as is the explanation as to how each wife “got unfriended!”. Touring to December this year, do we have enough middling size theatres in London to take the transfer of these brilliant new British musicals?
Don’t Lose Ur Head
Heart of Stone
Haus of Holbein
All You Wanna Do
I Don’t Need Your Love
Six: The Musical
Written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss
Directed by Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage
Drums – Alice Angliss
Guitar – Amy Shaw
Bass – Terri De Marco
Directors: Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage
Set Design: Emma Bailey
Costume Design: Gabriella Slade
Musical Director: Katy Richardson
Musical Supervisor: Joe Beighton
Orchestrations: Tom Curran
Sound Designer: Paul Gatehouse
Lighting Designer: Tim Deiling
Swing/Dance Captain: Grace Mouat
Running Time: One hour 15 minutes without an interval
Booking at the Arts from 25th April 2021
after closing at the Lyric on 18th April 2021
Great Newport Street
London WC2 7JB
Tube: Leicester Square
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Arts Theatre
on 12th September 2018