Review: SIX at Liverpool Empire ****1/2
When a sextet of students from Cambridge University’s musical theatre society premiered a new undergraduate show at the Edinburgh Fringe five years ago, little can they have imagined where it would lead.
But SIX immediately seized the imagination, and from modest beginnings (the initial idea came to co-writer Toby Marlow in a daydream during a poetry class), a Tudor-tastic international hit musical has grown.
Marlow and fellow writer Lucy Moss’s formidable and feisty girl band take on the mnemonic wives of Henry VIII dazzled audiences in the intimate surroundings of the Playhouse just a week before the first Covid lockdown in March 2020.
Now two years and one pandemic later, the slick show with sass-itude is back, this time storming the Empire’s huge stage – and winning roaring appreciation from a packed auditorium. Full houses for Tudor spouses.
The tightly choreographed, tightly-timed production pits the rockstar royals – Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anna of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Catherine Parr – against each other in a competitive sing-off for who had the worst time as Henry’s wife.
Is it loyal Spanish princess Catherine (Chloe Hart) who is married off to not one but two Tudor brothers, has a series of miscarriages and is then sidelined for a court full of mistresses before being divorced? Or self-absorbed Anne Boleyn (Jennifer Caldwell), who sings she’s ‘sorry not sorry’ for usurping the queen but then ends up losing her head?
Perhaps it’s demure Jane (Casey Al-Shaqsy) who gives Henry the heir he craves but dies days later? Or stoic ‘Flanders mare’ Anna (Grace Melville) who is put out to grass because she doesn’t quite live up to her profile pic – canny court painter Hans Holbein using too much filter.
How about flirty teenager Katherine Howard (Jaina Brock-Patel) who is used and abused by a succession of men before being victim-blamed and decapitated? Or pioneering Catherine Parr (Alana M Robinson) who gives up the man she loves to look after an old, fat, ulcerated and unpredictable monarch?
‘Her-story’ lesson and exuberant, roof-raising gig all in one, SIX is a riot of catchy tunes – in a range of styles from bubblegum pop to power ballad to Eurodance to sly reference to Henry VIII’s own Greensleeves, witty and at times suggestive lyrics, enjoyable harmonies, strong vocals, and a cracking all-female band.
But it also makes points about victimhood and sisterhood, unity and self-respect, and about the pitfalls of being defined not by who you are but who you married – the wives ultimately ‘reclaiming’ their stories to become the leading ladies.
Then again, 500 years after his reign what do we really remember Henry VIII himself for apart from his complicated marital status?
The show starts with a bang, with the sparring double act of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn being particularly powerful. And if the energy doesn’t quite remain at that heightened fever pitch throughout the whole 75-minute running time, there are plenty of fiery feminist fireworks to appreciate along the way.
Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded…but very much alive.