Arts Theatre, London – booking until January 2020
Guest reviewer: Hailey Bachrach
SIX knows exactly what it’s doing wrong, which is what makes it so aggravating. After an hour of catty jostling between the six ex-wives of King Henry VIII, who are competing in song to see who had the worst time of it, the show turns around and tries to scold itself for pitting the women against each other. It’s the ultimate in cheap, have-your-cake-and-eat-it moments: get the laughs, then admit they were lazy ones.
If SIX hadn’t done this about-face, its plot would still be annoyingly sexist and shallow, but at least you could lean into the distraction of the catchy songs and powerhouse vocals by the cast, backed by an all-woman band. And you could maybe imagine that creators Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss were trying their best but didn’t really know any better, or didn’t realise how their attempts to showcase the wives by making them squabble would come off. But they clearly do know better, because they say so. The revelation that everyone should get along is too little too late, and it’s an even more damning condemnation of patriarchal history-making that these clearly clever writers can’t even begin to think of how to tell the woman-centred story they admit they should have been telling all along.
SIX could use a dose of a play like Emilia’s fiery rage if it’s going to take the crimes of Henry VIII as its subject. It needs something more, anyway: the hands-down best number is that sung by Anna of Cleves (Alexia McIntosh), who smugly demonstrates one of the ways in which privileged women through history have figured out how to make the best of their circumstances and look after themselves.
Glancing reference is made to Catherine Parr’s literary outputs, which are equally worthy of a story in themselves. Catherine of Aragon (Jarneia Richard-Noel) gets another banger of a solo, pulsing with queenly indignation, but the cruelties done to Anne Boleyn (Millie O’Connell) and Katherine Howard (Aimie Atkinson) seem wary of taking their subjects as seriously as they deserve, though the final moments of Howard’s solo get close. (The play clearly has no idea what to do with poor Jane Seymour (Natalie Paris), whose virtue is uncomfortably indicated by the fact that she has the most modest costume, is the only blonde, and wears the least make-up.)
But frankly, none of this matters, because the show has transferred to the Arts Theatre on the back of a core of devoted fans, who could be heard cheering in anticipation throughout the night. There’s a wall of fan art up in the lobby. Two girls behind me occasionally sang along. These fierce, skilled women have inspired a following, and I can’t begrudge anyone their enjoyment of this fast-paced display of talented women – I enjoyed it, too. However – rather like the history it’s trying to tell – such awesome performers deserve a much better frame for showing what they’re capable of.