“What the show does instead is to tease out the delicate nuances of each character and the generous humanity of the writing”
Directed by Femi Elufowoju Jr, this adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play comes with the baggage of taking on an all-time classic, but it does so with empathy and style.
Tom Wingfield (Michael Abubakar) is ‘starting to boil inside’. He feels stifled living in a small St. Louis apartment with his loving but controlling mother Amanda (Lesley Ewen) and his sister Laura (Naima Swaleh), who suffers from both crippling shyness and the after-effects of childhood illness. Tom works joylessly in a shoe warehouse to support the three of them while dreaming of adventure and travelling further afield – like his father, who abandoned the family 15 years previously. Amanda persuades Tom to invite a friend to dinner in the hope that this ‘gentleman caller’ will fall in love with her fragile daughter and save her from poverty, solitude and her dreamy remoteness.
The first half unfolds slowly, allowing plenty of time to fill in the characters of the three family members. There are flashes of humour amid an overwhelming sense of sadness and frustration. The second half introduces Jim O’Connor (Charlie Maher), the gentleman caller upon whom so much expectation rests, and the intensity goes up several gears. As the plot develops, so too do the performances. Subtle – and less subtle – transformations ensue.
The moments in which Jim and Laura begin to reveal their true selves are utterly heartrending and exquisitely judged. My only criticism is that part of this key scene, with the pair sat on the floor, was difficult to see from the section of the theatre in which I was sitting. That said, it would be impossible to make such an intimate exchange equally visible from every angle. And anyway, the acting was so assured that their conversation was compelling even when I couldn’t see their faces. The devastating vulnerability on display takes you aback.
The set – often dim and shadowy, in keeping with the memories of the narrator – brilliantly frames the action. Beyond the claustrophobic interior of the apartment, there’s the moonlit fire escape with views of the dancehall along the street and the promise of greater freedoms beyond. With these simple elements a whole world is evoked.
Wisely, this production doesn’t attempt to reinvent Williams’ work. With the sparkling dialogue and perfect pacing of the source material, it could hardly be improved upon. What the show does instead is to tease out the delicate nuances of each character and the generous humanity of the writing, exploring the various shades of the emotional truths implicit in every line. The result is deeply affecting.
“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.