Arts Theatre, London – booking until January 2020
This week the 2019 Olivier Awards nominations were announced and Six is up for five. For a show which started as a university project, it’s pretty amazing and inspiring that Six is reaching such levels of stardom, and rightly so.
Since debuting with the Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society, showcasing at the Edinburgh Fringe, having a stint at the Arts Theatre, touring and now returning for a pretty open-ended run at the Arts, Six has gone up and up, reaching stratospheric levels of brilliance and dazzle.
Creators and besties Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss have somehow managed to capture every type of audience member with their inventive and exciting pop re-telling of Henry VIII’s wives. It seems impossible that this show can get better but on my fifth visit, I can confirm: it can!
The concept is that each of Henry VIII’s wives sing a song about the hardships of their time with him in the hope of having the most dramatic life story, and therefore becoming the Queen of Queens and leader of the girl group. The setup is the perfect vehicle to provide showcase moments for each performer and allow each story to be told with enough depth to keep it interesting and entertaining.
This is really an ensemble piece of theatre as each Queen has the opportunity for a solo, as well as backing up the others, so it’s only right that all six have been nominated as team for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical. Even the structure of the show, without the songs themselves, upholds the notion of women supporting women.
The Arts Theatre is transformed to a pop concert, Tudor Court with harpsichord remixes of modern songs greeting us as we take our seats. Tim Deiling’s pre-show lights act like a crown framing the stage and set the tone for the epic lighting that is to come.
Of course the music and performances are outstanding but they are taken up several notches by Deiling’s well thought out and supremely effective lighting. Gabriella Slade’s costumes are also spectacular. The clever use of stiff and sparkly fabrics mirror the message of femininity alongside power and are just another tick to add for this show. The sharp wit of the ladies is matched by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s choreography which is modern, pop inspired and oh so sharp. If the Arts Theatre paid its bills in sass, this choreography alone would do the job.
Whilst Six does follow real life people, not all the facts are historically correct and everything needs to be taken with a pinch of salt and a peep into a history textbook. However, Marlow and Moss have done an outstanding job of scattering facts here and there and allowing their own writing style, alongside influences from famous pop performers to develop the stories. The composers provide catchy tune after catchy tune as each of the queens tell their stories in their distinctly them style.
The two queens who got off the lightest (aka they were not killed and had pretty great lives post-Henry) bring fiery, energetic performances. Jarneia Richard-Noel as Catherine of Aragon is the definition of sass as she tells Henry there’s No Way he can throw her out like a pheasant carcass (not a direct quote but it sounds like a Tudor insult, right?) Anna of Cleves (Alexia McIntosh) shows her success as she regales us with snippets of her life in her resplendent, Richmond Palace. Both ladies perform their upbeat songs with enough energy to power the entire West End and give their absolute all night after night.
Otherwise, Natalie May Paris gives a completely heartfelt performance as “the only one he truly loved”, Jane Seymour who died young in childbirth. Her hilariously awkward one liners bring a like-ability to her character, as does her note perfect, chill-inducing rendition of Heart of Stone.
Natalie’s performance beautifully and painfully highlights the exploitation of women by the men in power. Whilst she proclaims her love for Henry, she also realises that Henry only loved her because she was able to provide him with an heir. Although all the women are treated badly by men, it’s Aimie Atkinson as Katherine Howard who gives the most strikingly painful display. All You Wanna Do is a slow building piece which portrays the dark way in which Katherine was essentially groomed her entire life. The way Aimie manages to show a complete character arc in this song, is truly skilful.
Millie O’Connell is utterly dazzling as the super cheeky Anne Boleyn who is equally used by men but employs her wit and sex appeal to fight back. Although this led to her head off demise, it allows for a fantastically well characterised performance which is worthy of every ounce of applause it receives.
This is an undoubtedly feminist show that inspires women to support each other and reminds us all that we’re stronger together. Maiya Quansah-Breed’s number towards the end I Don’t Need You Love is a pinnacle of the show as it is not only performed perfectly, but wraps up the show and its message so well. The queens combined are an absolute force to be reckoned with and upon leaving the theatre, my friend exclaimed “I’ve never wanted to be a sassy woman more… I’ve never felt so empowered!” and that is absolutely true.
Whilst many deep and pretty dark themes course through the roots of this show, writers Marlow and Moss and director Jamie Armitage have done a superb job of never making anything too heavy or overwhelming. They maintain a balance which thrills and moves the audience.
With various international productions and tours already in the works, there’s no doubt that Six will continue to receive acclaim and a posse of adoring fans around the world. This is the history lesson you’ll love and want to return to over and over again. Perfectly executed (!) and superbly created, Six is the smash hit you need to see… and see again.
photo credit: Idil Sukan