If GCSE history classes were half as energised as the musical Six there would have been a 90% pass rate. This hit fringe show featuring Henry VIII’s wives live in concert has traded The X Factor audition aesthetic of its first West End outing in January at the Arts Theatre for the atmosphere of an arena staging.
In Gabriella Slade’s dazzling costumes girl group Six look like a Tudor Little Mix – and they sound just as good. The combination of Emma Bailey’s set and Tim Deiling’s tremendous lighting creates the feel of a stadium-sized extravaganza on the relatively narrow stage at the Arts Theatre. The cast have voices powerful enough to fill it – if only they had something more to say.
Backed by an all-women band rocking out like they’re in an extended version of the Addicted to Love video, Six gives each wife a moment in the spotlight.
Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’ songs are more of a mixed bag than a greatest hits album. Anne of Cleves (Alexia McIntosh) has the audience dying to get up and get down in her Rhianna-inspired Queen of the Castle while Jane Seymour (Natalie Paris) belts out her ballad in full diva glory.
But elsewhere the show lacks substance. The three C/Katherines – Aragon (Jarneia Richard-Noel), Howard (Aimie Atkinson) and Parr (Maiya Quansah-Breed) – all have numbers that are under-baked and, although well performed, they are musically forgettable.
Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s choreography makes Anne Boleyn’s (Millie O’Connell) text-speak Sorry Not Sorry into an exuberant toe-tapper but it treads a fine line between kooky-fun and irritating.
The main thread of the narrative concerns the women’s competitiveness: which of them suffered the most? Which one of the wives was Henry’s true love? This oppression Olympics overshadows the vivacity of the sisterhood, and it’s not helped by the fact that Moss and Jamie Armitage’s direction peppers the women’s interactions with dirty looks and rolled eyes. All the hair-pulling and bitch-fighting feels like a lost opportunity, time that would be better spent watching the group kick arse in harmony. The rock goddess performances cannot entirely compensate for the mean girl streak that runs throughout the musical.
Marlow and Moss are aware the wives owe their notoriety to Henry but their acknowledgment is not the same as addressing how the women’s individuality has been expunged. There are hints, including a reference to Catherine Parr being the first woman in England to publish under her own name, but these are mere glimpses into imagined lives. A final number depicts what could have been had the queens been empowered. Yet it’s too little too late, coming across as wistful rather than the girl power banger the audience are longing for.
It remains a sad fact that women’s stories are so commonly written out of history and Six could be braver with its artistic licence in giving the wives back their voices.