“one of the hottest shows on right now, created by brilliant, talented young artists who are shaking up the West End”
The 2019 Olivier Awards nominations were announced yesterday, with Six up for five. For a student-created show that debuted at Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, Six has skyrocketed to the highest ranks of London theatre. The performance starring all six of Henry VIII’s wives joins Come from Away, Tina, and Fun Home in the Olivier category for Best New Musical. These are the biggest players in the West End, and Six has incredibly but undeniably earned its place among them.
Written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, and directed by Moss and Jamie Armitage, Six is not like musicals you’ve seen before. Framed as a pop concert/X Factor competition, the ex-queens take turns singing their stories, all vying for the title of Who Had It Worst with the infamously bad-tempered King Henry. Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived. The six songs are as different as the six women. Marlow and Moss cover the range of pop, drawing influence from modern queens Beyoncé, Adele, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, Lilly Allen, and Alicia Keys. Genuinely hit-worthy music, beyond-clever lyrics (rapid-fire historical references spun with millennial-modern allusions), and knock-out performances (from the queens as well as their all-female live band) combine to create a formidable new contender on the musical scene.
Jarneia Richard-Noel (Catherine of Aragon), Millie O’Connell (Anne Boleyn), Natalie Paris (Jane Seymour), Alexia McIntosh (Anna of Cleves), Aimie Atkinson (Katherine Howard), and Maiya Quansah-Breed (Catherine Parr) rock the glittered combat boots and Tudor-punk, power-glam outfits that have earned Gabriella Slade an Olivier nomination for Best Costume Design. The queens belt out their songs and slay their choreography with the same energy you’d expect from the real-life divas who inspired them. McIntosh stands out for her excellent comedic presence.
Although it may seem dubious, considering the premise involves Henry’s wives competing over who had the worst marriage, the show is undoubtedly feminist. The six women take the microphone to reclaim their stories – to give their perspectives, which have been left out of the history books. That they all perform as each other’s supporting vocals and backup dancers effectively reveals the facetious nature of their rivalry. They’re really a team. And although they only come to this realisation in the end, the show spends the whole time arguing they were people, not just wives.
Six is largely tongue-in-cheek. It’s funny and fun more than it’s informative. The whole thing is joyously playful, surprisingly fresh, and wildly entertaining. There’s a delightful, amateurish silliness to the concept, which seems to stem from a couple of sleep-deprived students procrastinating their History final. (Recent Cambridge grads Marlow and Moss wrote the play during their exams).
Six has had an incredible journey, from its beginnings at Edinburgh Fringe just two years ago, to the five Olivier nominations it received yesterday. This is one of the hottest shows on right now, created by brilliant, talented young artists who are shaking up the West End.
Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived. The story of Henry VIII’s wives is probably one of the most familiar parts of British history, having inspired countless movies, novels and TV adaptations. But I challenge anyone to find one as uplifting and empowering as Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow’s Six. A stunning ensemble piece, pitch perfect with its tongue firmly in a cheek. The cast are vocally impeccable, each performing with an individual charm and flair that blends flawlessly. The score is bright, fun and rockets along. It is very hard to stay in your seat as the urge to dance along stays with you after the curtain comes down. This is a bright, brash girls night with a pumping sound track. But there is a message in the madness and it lands full force thanks to the spirit and energy of the performers.
The story may be well known – Henry VIII a man who abandoned his faithful wife for a younger model, then bullied, bored and executed his way through 5 more, reshaping England along the way – but this show is not just about history. It’s about challenging women’s narratives and redefining the roles. These women have been cast as victims – even Parr who ‘survived’ Henry is rarely considered more than a footnote in his story. This show tackles that head on. The premise is simple – each wife gives their case to the audience to prove themselves the true Queen by proving that they suffered the most. But what we see is not a collection of sob stories, whinging and wallowing. These ladies kick arse, (literally in some cases), and the result is one of the most jubilant and energetic takes on the six I have ever seen.
Far from indulging in weakness, the show highlights the strength, humour and depth in these characters creating six well rounded and charismatic women for the modern day. And some of their problems don’t seem that far removed from 2018 – we even see the Tudor version of Tinder. The first three, perhaps the most familiar due to the controversy surrounding Anne, kick against the stereotypes. Far from the dutiful wife, Catherine of Aragon (Renée Lamb) has sass and attitude, blowing in a with a ballsy number that demands answers. Neither the scheming seductress or manipulated pawn, Anne Boleyn (Christina Modestou) is just a girl who wants to have fun with perhaps the most catchy number of the night, (I’ll confess to humming that one on the way home). And though earnest, Jane Seymour’s (Natalie Paris) ballad resonates with strength and power. There are no shy or shrinking violets on this stage.
Perhaps because they are so often overlooked elsewhere, it’s the second half that really holds some surprises. Had the crown really been up for grabs, my vote would have gone to Anne of Cleves (Genesis Lynea). With her hip hop anthem Queen of The Castle, the 4th queen is celebrated as the one who played the game and ultimately came out a winner, even if history has been unkind. But its not all innocent glee. Catherine Howard (Aimie Atkinson), performing an Arianna Grande style pop song with added bravado, has a heart wrenching moment of poignancy as she literally gets stuck in her own rhythm. Finally Catherine Parr (Izuka Hoyle) – the survivor. This is where the show really flips. Catherine’s song breaks the narrative and dares to offer a view on the character not coloured by Henry. She calls out the history books for relegating these women to the roles of wives, props in Henry VIII story. The final note of the show is not the six bickering over their role in a man’s story – it’s six women coming together to be seen as individuals and it had the whole audience cheering and clapping along.
Six is an exuberant and joyful musical treat – the perfect antidote to Black Monday and a great show to see in the new year.