If you are looking for an evening of entertainment filled with speaker-blowing pop anthems, then Six is the musical experience for you, complete with witty historical puns and pop-group vocals.
Arts Theatre, London
Seen: 11/04/19 Circle: A4
Directed by: Lucy Moss & Jamie Armitage
Book, Music & Lyrics: Toby Marlow & Lucy Moss
Choreography: Carrie-Anne Ingrouille
Starring: Jarneia Richard-Noel, Millie O’Connell, Natalie Paris, Alexia McIntosh, Aimie Atkinson, Maiya Quansah-Breed, Grace Mouat, Vicki Manser & Courtney Stapleton
Set Design: Emma Bailey
Costume Design: Gabriella Slade
Lighting Design: Tim Deiling
Sound Design: Paul Gatehouse
Tickets can be found here.
It is understandable why comparisons have been drawn between Six and Hamilton. Both relay historical events and figures using anachronistic musical styles and replete with witty and inventive rhymes. Nominated for 5 What’s On Stage Awards and 5 Olivier Awards in 2019, it’s certainly being talked about. The story of how Six came about is perhaps even more extraordinary, having been conceived and written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss during their final year at Cambridge University. Following successful outings at Edinburgh Fringe, Six transferred to Arts Theatre for a handful of performances, before heading on a UK Tour and finally landing for a West End run that is currently booking until January 2020.
In interviews, Marlow and Moss have made it clear that they wanted to give all of the wives a life and existence outside of the classic rhyme “Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived”. In this, Six succeeds: it gives voice to each of the six queens through the premise of a competition between the six women to see who had to put up with the worst in their lives. From reading the premise, it seems drastically unfeminist – a point which is certainly not lost in the context of the show, so put down your pitchforks. Not everything has to be perfect, and the conflict does allow the audience to see the inner workings of each of these women and see them in a three-dimensional light. Indeed, for the vast majority of the audience, our only experience of these historical figures are through the lens of Henry’s life and what Henry did to them, and then what Henry did next. This show puts the concept on its head, and almost makes the point that it’s Henry who is brought fame by them (which is a very fair point and one which I hadn’t considered. Do people talk about Henry VII as much? Not really. Sure, he won the Wars of the Roses and started the Tudor line, but gets little consideration. And whenever anybody mentions Henry VIII they immediately connect him with his Six Wives. So why is it that Henry is the main character of that story as opposed to the women he used?).
Now, the Tudor period of history is undoubtedly my favourite. It’s so complex and interesting and some really messed up stuff happened in this era, including all the beheadings and infidelity that seemed rife in court society. It probably helped that my teacher at the time was really passionate about the topic and it rubbed off on me; I like to think (since I’ve indoctrinated an entire class into reading Harry Potter and talking about Anne Boleyn) that I have done the same thing with my own class. It was therefore surprising to me that there was still so much that I learned about these women considering my background knowledge already – and even if it wasn’t brand new information, it still led me to interpret this in a new way.
So everybody knows that Catherine of Aragon was the first queen and that she refused to get divorced from Henry because she believed that she was the true queen. But have we stopped to consider the hurt and anger that Catherine must have experienced, having been the faithful and dutiful wife to Henry for 23 years merely to passed to the side for some young ambitious lady in waiting raised in French Court? I certainly had not, and the ballsy R&B number “No Way” certainly gives voice to this interpretation, and behind the sassy and angry façade that Aragon gives here, she shows through the bridge a longing for Henry to take her back still.
Historians never seem especially certain what to make of Anne Boleyn. Most assume that the accusations made against Anne were false and trumped up to remove her in favour of Jane Seymour, an altogether much more obedient queenly figure. Anne is known to have been opinionated and outspoken, and many historians credit her as being playing a masterful game to seduce Henry since first meeting him by refusing to becoming his mistress. The interpretation that Six gives us – and is, no doubt, backed up by a wealth of historical evidence I simply haven’t seen – is Anne’s father pushing her towards power through her interactions with the King. Her downfall comes through her impetuous nature and wanting to hurt Henry for cheating on her with other women and therefore doing the same back at him. The resultant action therefore shows Anne to be out of her depth and frightened, caught in a situation that she never meant to be in. All of this is relayed to us in the delightful Brit-pop number “Don’t Lose Ur Head”, channeling the very best of Kate Nash vibes and filled with modern references, such as Henry texting Anne and a cheeky “pret a manger” thrown in for good measure.
Next we come to Jane Seymour. What right does she have to complain? Well, as the souring ballad “Heart of Stone”, plus a highly emotive monologue demonstrate, Jane – though she is widely regarded as the only wife who Henry actually loved, tragically lost her life after giving birth.
Anne of Cleves (or Anna as she is called in this musical) then brings the house down with EDM-filled “Get Down”, in which she reveals that actually she didn’t have a bad time at all, and it was the best for Henry to divorce her as she got to live a life of luxury.
Katherine Howard gets her narrative turned on its head. Being known as the “other beheaded queen” is hardly the greatest title, but the story of Howard is probably one of the more tragic. While many historians view her to be simple and naive, and indeed this is the belief that I had held for a long time, Howard was first molested when she was just a teen and she continued to have similarly abusive relationships with men for the duration of her life – and then just to top it off she got beheaded. Ah, Tudor justice, you come through yet again. And all of this is very deftly handled in the song “All You Wanna Do”, which starts as a flirty and seductive number, until Howard realises that all the men in her life are only after one thing, at which point it starts being deeply unsettling and uncomfortable.
Finally, we get Catherine Parr – another queen who is perhaps not given as much focus as the earlier queens (who bore children) in our History GCSEs. Here, in “I Don’t Need Your Love”, Parr says goodbye to her lovers in the past now that she has been selected by Henry. She laments the need to get married as a woman in Tudor England, and also laments the need within the context of the musical to only sing about her relationship with Henry, when she’d much rather focus upon her other achievements. It’s this revelation that brings all six of the women to unite and sing “Six”, complete with a new version of history that they have created within their own show, demonstrating their unity and sisterhood.
It is therefore clear that Six gives a voice to the previously unheard and overseen figures in history. In the current political climate, it is hardly any surprise that more attention is being turned to important women in history and why we know their stories in less detail than the men who surround them, and it has never been more apparent than in this show. As a man, I feel like it would be inappropriate and somewhat condescending of me to feel empowered by viewing the show, but I did feel a sense of pride and joy at seeing these underrepresented historical figures finally getting their time in the spotlight within this show. I saw characters who I thought I knew intimately completely redefined and become incredibly sympathetic characters within my mind. It gave a personhood to the history that I had been retelling for so long, as well as demonstrating my long-held belief that men in power have always been awful.
Not only is the story and the varied music so compelling, this is suitably backed up by the stunning costumes, which combine Tudor fashion with a pop princess of the like of Ariana and Beyoncé, as well as a set that convincingly passes as the backdrop for a stadium tour. The theatre itself is suitably immersive, with pop songs such as “Toxic” and “Bad Romance” being played on the harpsichord while the audience take their seats.
To top it all off, the performances from the leading ladies were utterly stunning. When I saw it, I had the privilege of seeing two of the covers: Grace Mouat as Aragon and Vicki Manser as Parr. I have honestly never been so captivated by all of the women’s performances. They brought so much life and spirit to these different characters. I could see the depth and the hurt from within that they each gave to their different parts. What’s more, I am entirely obsessed with the performances given by the covers – these are women who are able to perform literally any of the parts within the show, and they performed these parts flawlessly when I saw it. To make it even more incredible, Mouat had already done one performance that day, but playing Howard mere hours before and then flawlessly inhabiting Aragon. I was utterly mindblown; I just cannot get over how phenomenally talented and underrated swings are.
To top the whole thing off, the entire performance is entirely hilarious. The witty and, at times, catty interactions between the queens sells the entire show and you get some wonderful historical puns (“Come on ladies, let’s get in reformation”, for example). Other amusing moments include, “Everybody chill, it’s totes God’s will”, when Anne is excommunicated and marries Henry. All of these wonderful additions bring these six women into an accessible place for a modern audience and through the medium of music that we are all happy dancing around to, realise that the struggles experienced by historical figures are still highly relevant and relatable even in modern times – which is slightly terrifying if you think too much about it. Though it does not cover the entire history involved (such as the fact that Anne Boleyn was pretty much executed just to get her out of the way, plus the fact that the Thomas Seymour that Catherine Parr sings a love song to is both Jane Seymour’s brother, as well as widely thought to have sexually assaulted Elizabeth I while she was under the care of Parr and her future husband – not exactly time for those things), it gives you just enough to want to go away and Wikipedia the history of these women independently. It’s small wonder that Six is booking up until January 2020, and brings a whole new meaning to me screaming “Yaaaas queen” at a stage.
- I have listed all three of the swings in the main starring list because honestly, they might have the hardest job. The choreography is so slick and enthusiastic, it must be difficult to put that face on when you have to be mentally wondering which part you are standing in for that day, especially when the award nominations go to others in the cast. Brava, ladies. Honestly inspiring. I have new performance idols.
- One thing that I’ve noticed from my aggressive Twitter and Instagram stalking of all of the actresses involved is that each of the leading ladies, including the swings, have their own special costume. I think it’s really cute. They all have a different colour too, which is lovely.