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Six (Arts Theatre)

In what has already been termed a triumphant return to the London stage (the current run has literally just started and has been given a year-long extension), Six comes back to the Arts Theatre with new actresses in the parts of Henry VIII’s six wives (“Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived”).

Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss created this show as a student production at Cambridge, and later wowed audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe. Their mission, as stated in the programme, is not just to rehabilitate the six Queens, but to anchor their stories in the modern world, and to let the women tell their stories without being “too earnest or sincere”.

Jane, Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves, Catherine of Aragon, Katharine Howard, Catherine Parr. Photo by Colin Penn
Jane, Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves, Catherine of Aragon, Katharine Howard, Catherine Parr. Photo by Colin Penn

With a backing band of four, (“Ladies in Waiting” – Arlene McNaught, Alice Angliss, Amy Shaw, Terri De Marco), the six take their places with an opening ensemble number to confirm which is which, before entering into a contest to see who suffered the most, by telling their personal stories in catchy song.

The ensuing concert – Divorced, Beheaded, Live! – allows each Queen to come to the forefront with the others performing back-up functions; sometimes in high-energy dance format, sometimes in ballad form.

It’s hard to single out a song, or a performance. Some are stronger earworms, but some are stronger stories. The current six – Jarneia Richard-Noel, Millie O’Connell, Natalie Paris, Alexia McIntosh, Aimie Atkinson and Maiya Quansah-Breed – are all terrific, hard-working, likeable performers.

Anne Boleyn, Jane, Anne of Cleves, Katharine Howard. Photo by Colin Penn
Anne Boleyn, Jane, Anne of Cleves, Katharine Howard. Photo by Colin Penn

Catherine of Aragon’s “no way” when jettisoned to a nunnery and exile following 25 years of marriage and 5 miscarriages has the power you would expect from the woman who put up with so much for so long, shipped from her home country to marry first one brother then another when the first one died.

Anne Boleyn’s Essex girl “sorry/not sorry” is a girl power rant for the Netflix generation with liberal usage of text speak, but showing the exploited young girl underneath. History shows that Anne was playing a game with the King which led to his obsession and her imprisonment, and it is no wonder she may have got bored, used purely as a young baby farm.

Jane Seymour shows herself to be a devoted wife and mother, who doesn’t talk back, and who’s only regret is that she didn’t live to see her son (that sickly son, remember, who didn’t rule for long and was overshadowed by the sisters his father had disinherited). Jane, who had served her predecessor Queen and who stood with Henry waiting for the signal that her head had gone, freeing her to be wife number three.

Anne of Cleves, often dismissed as dull and ugly, is badass and sexy (“you said I didn’t look like my profile picture”), and happy in her riches and her freedom. She reclaims herself from being the boring and the irrelevant one and gets the measure of her horny husband.

Katharine Howard is the pop tart exploited from teenage years, with men who pursue her and “all you want to do is touch me, squeeze me, can’t get enough, see”. She was married at seventeen and dead at nineteen, her crime having been abused by opportunistic men no different than her ageing husband. Even Thomas Culpeper, who is usually thought to be her true love, is shown to have exploited her and put them both in danger.

Catherine Parr, the survivor, who writes a letter she never sends to the man she truly loves, who wishes she had not caught the eye of the King who just needs a nursemaid to end his days. The contestant who is a “Prot-est-ant”, who claims “I don’t need your love” but marries four times because life for a Tudor woman dictates it, and eventually goes like Jane, dead in childbirth with the son of the man she had to give up for Henry.

Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, Catherine Parr. Photo by Colin Penn
Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, Catherine Parr. Photo by Colin Penn

The contest unravels when the Queens realise they can detach themselves from just being known as Henry’s wives, stop trying to outdo each other, and assert themselves in their own revised histories and reformation (“you can try but I’m unbreakable”), and we feel we have got to know these ladies just that little bit better.

This is a glittery, fun and feminist musical, full of puns, dance moves, and sass. Even for Tudor obsessives (and I’m one, having read and seen just about everything on the topic from straight history to television adaptation to romantic fiction) can find something new to ponder about.

And by the end, it is Henry who is invisible, as his wives re-identify themselves as Catherine, Anne, Jane, Anne, Katherine, and Cathy, rather than by their proximity to the throne.

Anne Boleyn, Jane, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, Catherine Parr. Photo by Colin Penn
Anne Boleyn, Jane, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, Catherine Parr. Photo by Colin Penn

At just eighty minutes without an interval, this show can easily be slotted in to your theatre-going, and I’d recommend it to musical fans, to those who love their history to be a bit irreverent, and to women who want to see good stories told.

Six continues at the Arts Theatre until January 2020.

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