Music and Lyrics: Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss
Directors: Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage
To a cynical mind it’s the elevator pitch from hell: the wives of Henry VIII formed into a girl band. For anyone who has rightly given a wide berth to the myriad rock’n’roll/beatbox/rap battle versions of Shakespeare that compete for attention during the Edinburgh Fringe, the mere thought of history given an X Factor treatment will be enough to induce an attack of the screaming abdabs.
But let it be known that the gods of musical theatre have smiled on Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss in their venture to bring herstory to life in just such a way. SIX began as one of those very same Edinburgh Fringe shows, and just two short years later is selling out venues across the UK and beyond.
Six women, united by their unwitting involvement in the ultimate example of historical #metoo, gather on the pretext of offering their own version of their stories. And despite sticking to its fringe-friendly format of a small cast and a 75-minute running time, everything else about the production is supercharged, from the kaleidoscope lighting structures to the slick choreography.
These ex-wives set out to win our votes for being the queen who endured the most during her time with Henry: Catherine of Aragon (Lauren Dew) was married to him longest; Anne Boleyn (Maddison Bulleyment) was famously beheaded; Jane Seymour (Lauren Byrne) died after giving birth to Henry’s male heir; Anna of Cleves (Shekinah McFarlane) was rejected for being less beautiful than her portrait; Katherine Howard (Jodie Steele) was executed on the pretext of being unchaste; and Catherine Parr (Athena Collins) had been twice widowed, leaving her reliant on Henry’s marital mercy.
Taking inspiration from contemporary pop music royalty, we hear everything from Boleyn’s defiant Avril Lavigne-like refusal to apologise (‘Don’t Lose Your Head’) to Seymour’s mournful Adele-style ballad of unreciprocated love (‘Heart of Stone’), and from a Gaga-themed club sequence (‘Haus of Holbein’) to Howard’s Britney Spears-esque realisation that physical attention doesn’t always bring emotional connection (‘All You Wanna Do’).
But these are no mere parodies or pastiches: each song has a freshness that builds on its pop culture influence, with lyrics by turns witty and heartfelt, distilling nuggets of historical content in an engaging and playful way. And this is what truly elevates SIX – we’re watching a pop concert filtered through recognisable cultural influences but which gives each woman her own authentic voice, all at the same time as covertly leading us through a feminist take on British history.
As individuals, each of these singers has a voice to put to shame many headline chart acts, and comic timing to make professional comedians wince. But when they work as a collective they are genuinely fierce. From the high octane choreography to the pitch-perfect tone of their banter and teasing of each other, they manage to simultaneously be sympathetic historical figures and contemporary models of strength and integrity.
Everything about this production is focused, modern and relatable. And just as the cynic might start frothing when the dead queens begin citing the number of miscarriages they endured, in their effort to win the title of most ill-treated, the show smartly takes a meta turn and whisks them – and us – away from demeaning comparisons to an empowering rewrite of the whole patriarchal historical perspective.
And if you think that sounds like a hip school teacher trying to make history sexy, then you’ve massively misunderestimated SIX in the way that that cynic might do.
The reality is that it’s unashamedly fun, discreetly sophisticated and devoutly empowering. This is both musical theatre and history for the post-Millennial, authentically woke generation.
Runs until 9 February 2020 | Image: Johan Persson