Hamilton, and the good news is that however much reviewers (including me) like to compare the latest ones to the Broadway juggernaut, none of the British entries have really used Lin-Manuel Miranda as a template, each instead taking its own eccentric path. SIX is the first of the current crop to be sent back across the Atlantic – a Chicago production in the spring will be hoping to carry on to New York – and it’s hard to think of a piece of English history that’d be an easier sell to American audiences than the six wives of Henry VIII. Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’ musical played a short run at the Arts Theatre in the autumn, when I was too busy to catch it, but it’s now returned there after a national tour, and is already booking a year in advance. And it’s not hard to see why, as the publicity campaign must be getting help from enough enthusiastic word of mouth to fill the small theatre for a while.
Where Hamilton was hip-hop and Wasted was pop-rock, SIX is pure pop, the six queens recast as a girl band who, over 80 minutes, compete to determine which one of them is the Beyoncé.
In true X-Factor fashion, the lead singer won’t be determined by talent but by who has the saddest sob story about their treatment at the hands of their husband, beginning with Catherine of Aragon (Jarneia Richard-Noel,) whose claim to fame is that she spent the longest time putting up with marriage to Henry, only to have him discard her for a younger model and try to have her sent to a nunnery. The show plays on the relative fame of the six women, with Anne Boleyn (Millie O’Connell) the one who’s caused the most fascination over the centuries. Avoiding coming down on one side of the argument or the other over whether she was a victim or a manipulator, Marlow and Moss instead go with the sentiment “what if Anne Boleyn was Lolly?” and her "Don't Lose Ur Head" is pure bubblegum pop.
Moss and Jamie Armitage’s production casts the show as a concert, meaning it stands and falls on its songs even more than most musicals, and with its short running time packs them into an evening with zero filler. One of my measures of how good a new musical is is how many of the songs will make it onto my iPod, and SIX will probably score high on that score, with songs that are both catchy and witty. The main section of the show sees each of the women in order do their own big number, with a surreal German dance music interlude halfway through to visit the “Haus of Holbein,” in honour of the painter whose portrait Anna of Cleves famously didn’t live up to. Anna’s (Alexia McIntosh) “Get Down” is one of the most satisfying numbers, as she freely admits she has no chance of winning the “most miserable wife” competition, and will have to somehow console herself in her massive private palace full of cash.
The show wears its feminist credentials lightly but they’re something that builds throughout the evening, as Catherine Parr (Maiya Quansah-Breed) questions the fact that they’re pitting themselves against each other in the first place. The sob stories have been getting increasingly dark, and Katherine Howard’s (Aimie Atkinson) “All You Wanna Do” is downright ABBA levels of bleakness under a cheery tune. She’s not a queen who gets as much attention as the other executed one, seen as less of a tragic figure because she actually did what she was beheaded for, but she died at the age of 19 and SIX convincingly reassesses her as someone abused by men since the age of 13. The more serious side that sometimes emerges (Natalie Paris’ Jane Seymour gets, inevitably, a power ballad about her early demise) isn’t at the expense of the show’s energy and enthusiasm, and ultimately the characters’ triumph is the acknowledgement that for all that the women are remembered because of their husband, Henry VIII is himself more famous than other kings because of them.
Gabriella Slade’s costume design plays up to the sexy image the queens are trying to project at first, colour-coding them all – Anne Boleyn is green, like her sleeves – in little plastic mini-dresses and spiky crowns. 80 minutes isn’t enough to really get under the skin of all these women but SIX absolutely succeeds as a raucous and entertaining evening, and in the process slips in a couple of challenges to the preconceptions about the six wives.
SIX by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss is booking until the 5th of January 2020 at the Arts Theatre.
Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.
Photo credit: Idil Sukan.