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BRIGHTON FRINGE: Divorced, Beheaded, Died: An Audience with King Henry VIII – Friends Meeting House 

Reviewer: Simon Topping

 

Writer: John White

Performer: Jack Abbot

 

The year is 1544 and Henry VIII is touring his realm to get away from the summer time “stink” of London.  Taking time out of his busy schedule the king has condescended to give an audience to his loyal subjects in Brighthelmstone (the ancient name for Brighton). 

Walking through the Friends Meeting House doorway, to the sounds of a fine madrigal, Jack Abbot looks the perfect picture of an older Henry VIII, resplendent in his finery; an imposing looking figure, with staff in hand.   

His Majesty is in poor health (hence the stick to help him walk) he has an open wound on his leg and is in considerable pain, which leads to long bouts of bad humour. 

In Tudor vernacular, Henry goes on to recount how he unexpectedly became King, at only age seventeen, due to his brother, Arthur’s, death. Married at eighteen to an incredibly “old” wife (in his eyes) of twenty six, the king is obsessed with carrying on his line; he must have a son. Catherine of Aragon has six pregnancies but only a girl (Mary) survives.  So, after twenty years plus of married life, Henry goes out on his quest to attempt to divorce his betrothed. This causes a rift with the Catholic Pope and leads to the establishment of the Church of England for Henry’s gain.  Sadly there is to be a series of disastrous unions and further marital anguish, until he meets his final partner, the wise and gentle, Catherine Parr. 

Henry VIII’s wives define his reign in many ways; it’s what most people know about the monarch; firstly he had black moods and tyrannical tendencies and secondly he had six wives; there’s even a fantastic musical about them.  It is these modern interpretations of the Henry VIII story that make this performance seem rather old fashioned. 

The linear storytelling, while historically accurate and well performed, is missing something. How Henry maligns and abuses the women of his life has been told many times before.  Why not tell the gathering some interesting snippets of the court, such as what he eats and how he banquetes, talk about the keeper of the Royal privy or of the jousting accident that almost killed him; these seem all richer avenues to explore. 

Abbot (who is the acting alter ego of the piece’s writer John White) does have great presence in the role.  He looks the part and sounds like Brian Blessed as he roars at his audience; Those on the front row can hear the full blast of his delivery.  He bellows for vast part of the performance, but he has no need to keep to this pitch.  When he drops in register the acting becomes more poignant and effective.   He also has an unusual tendency to lift into a high vocal register from time to time, which appears rather odd to the listener.  This may, of course, be historically accurate, but it slightly distracts away from the power of the performance. 

Abbot is a powerhouse and embodies Henry VIII perfectly, he is fun to watch and takes his space confidently; conveying the tormented king at the end of his reign very well.  The play itself would benefit a reworking for a modern audience.     

Reviewed on 11th June 

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