Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss
Kenny Wax, Wendy & Andy Barnes and George Stiles
Grand Opera House, York

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The cast Credit: Pamela Raith

As a nation, we are obsessed with the Tudors. From Oscar-winning films (Shakespeare in Love) to Booker Prize-winning novels (the Wolf Hall trilogy by the late, great Hilary Mantel) to television documentaries (too many to mention!), there is an insatiable appetite for content about the five monarchs who ruled over England between 1485 and 1603.

There are many reasons for the popularity of this particular era, but I’m sure that one of them is the fairy-tale properties of its two greatest rulers. If Elizabeth I was—according to Edmund Spenser—a “Faerie Queen”, then her gluttonous father Henry VIII was a combination of Bluebeard and the wicked emperor from Arabian Nights.

It was an inspired idea of Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss to create a musical about the six wives of Henry VIII—so inspired in fact that I’m amazed it hasn’t been done before. The downfall of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s VIII’s second wife, has of course been dramatized on stage before—most famously perhaps in Anne of the Thousand Days—but the other five wives have been comparatively neglected.

SIX was first originally conceived as a production for the Edinburgh Fringe—a fact which might surprise some audience members given its huge international success. At any rate, the show’s humble origins can be detected in its short running time (only 80 minutes), breakneck pacing and simple yet ingenious premise.

The six dead queens have returned to set the record straight by participating in a competition to see who had the worst time with their hellish husband. Will it be either Anne Boleyn (Jennifer Caldwell) or Katherine Howard (Rebecca Wickes), both of whom had their heads chopped off? What about Catherine of Aragon (Chlőe Hart)—Henry’s devoted first wife—who was summarily ditched after 24 years of marriage? Maybe one of the other three queens—Jane Seymour (Casey Al-Shaqsy), Anna of Cleves (Jessica Niles) and Catherine Parr (Alana M Robinson)—has something up their (Green)sleeves.

In their original manifesto for the show, Marlow and Moss wrote that they hoped to “provide a different perspective on the six queens separate from their status as wives” and show that “there are still parallels to be found in the female experience” regardless of the five-century time gap. In this regard, SIX is a rousing success, allowing these six historical figures to assert their own individuality and take back control of their own stories.

Over the course of ten superbly eclectic songs—drawing inspiration from a cavalcade of female artists such as Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna—Marlow and Moss offer up a series of wittily differentiated characters. While I enjoyed each of the queens’ numbers, I was particularly impressed by “Don’t Lose Ur Head”, in which Anne Boleyn channels the humorous pop stylings of Lily Allen and Kate Nash, and “Get Down”, where Anna of Cleves evokes Nicki Minaj whilst celebrating the brevity of her marriage.

It would be impossible for me to rank one of the six performers over the other: they are all superb. From the moment they first stepped on stage, they held the audience in the palm of their hand. Not only do the queens shine during their individual numbers, they also execute Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s high-energy choreography with great aplomb.

Emma Bailey’s striking set design, coupled with Tim Deiling’s dynamic lighting, conjure up the spectacle of a pop concert, and Gabriella Slade’s sparkly, historically-inspired costumes have already become iconic.

Six is the best British musical since Matilda, offering audiences a funny, occasionally sad, but ultimately joyous night at the theatre.

Reviewer: James Ballands

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