The Six Wives of Henry VIII – King’s Head Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Howard Coggins and Stu McLoughlin

Director: Craig Edwards

Love him or loathe him, Henry VIII is England’s most fascinating monarch, a man with multiple
marriages, his own “spin-off” church and a fondness for decapitation. And as the sensational Six
heads to Broadway, Living Spit Theatre Company make their London debut at the King’s Head
Theatre with their own take on the life of the merry monarch, a show they first performed with the
support of the Bristol Old Vic in 2012, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

Henry VII is facing the end of his life and bestows his kingly wisdom on beloved favourite son
Arthur who has all the potential to be a great monarch. But fate has other ideas and when Arthur
unexpectedly dies his brother Henry inherits the throne instead. And Henry is looking for love, a good
woman to provide a much-needed son, so he looks, and he looks, and he looks…

Living Spit offer a version of Henry VIII you’ve never seen before – forget Charles Laughton, Damien
Lewis and Jonathan Rhys Meyers because Howard Coggins’ Henry is just an ordinary bloke trying to
get by. With plenty of anarchic humour and cartoony characterisation, Coggins and co-star Stu
McLoughlin recreate the Tudor era with the part-narrated / part-acted comedy musical that references
every wife, key moment and Henryesque heartache with cheeky panache.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII is full of invention, and in retelling this most famous of stories, the writers
borrow plenty of pop culture references from the last 30-years; Henry’s search for fourth wife Anne of
Cleves is reimagined as a Blind Date style TV show while his search for an Archbishop of Canterbury
for his new church becomes a Britain’s Got Talent pastiche. Even every groan-inducing reference to
Jane Seymour is accompanied by a nod to the career of the actor who stared in Doctor Quinn
Medicine Woman and Live and Let Die. And you may be surprised to hear the ghost of Henry VII who
appears at the birth of his grandson Edward VI was a Roger Moore Bond fan.

The show is at its best when it plays fast and loose with history in this slightly zany way, imagining the
bickering old couple relationship between Henry and Jane or sly references to The Lion King,
Thundercats and Jeremy Kyle when Henry amusingly fashions a sixteenth-century polygraph test for
naughty Katherine Howard who can’t possibly go to the block before her Pilates class. The songs too
are hugely varied and while several have a country twang that suits Coggins’ voice including Henry’s
ascension song Things are Gonna Change Around Here’, it is the German-techno influenced dance
and divorce number that steals the show.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII is on less firm ground when it moves away from Henry and includes
several meta references to the actors staging the show as they argue over historiographic detail, who
is allowed to add new “facts” to the show and even staging a faux walkout by McLoughlin who leaves
Coggins to manage Henry’s final bride alone. These sections weigh down the ending, zapping the
energy without adding anything to the story we’re being told, and of course the audience know
McLoughlin will be back, so it seems a strange rouse to create some final drama it doesn’t need.

Coggins is a great Henry, not only for the much-proclaimed physical likeness to Holbein’s famous
portrait, but in finding warmth and normalcy in a character that is so often portrayed as an obese
monster. This comedic Henry is funny but also has feelings and there are several tender moments
that vary the pace a little while still retaining the lightness of touch which is one of the show’s big

McLoughlin does a sterling job as the wives, making each one distinct and memorable; Katherine of
Aragon is a Spanish (by way of France) saucepot, Anne Boleyn an actual Barbie doll, Jane Seymour
a West Country wifey, Anne of Cleves a slightly scary war obsessive and Katherine Howard a
Geordie princess, before a few minutes as a kindly Catherine Parr. Add to that every other character in the show, including Henry VII, the squeaky voiced toddler Edward VI and several Archbishop
candidates and McLoughlin has almost singlehandedly recreated the entire Tudor era.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII has taken eight years to get to London which even by sixteenth-century
standards is quite a long time, but it was worth the wait. With fourteen other shows that have yet to air
in the capital including Elizabeth I – Virgin on the Ridiculous and their new version of Frankenstein
scheduled for later this year, we may be seeing a lot more of Living Spit and their hilarious historical

Runs until 7 March 2020

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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