“Divorced, Beheaded, Died.
Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.”
Everybody is taught the rhyme in school. The fate of Henry VIII’s wives is drilled into us at a young age. “Remember us from your GCSEs?”. History teaches us about the tyrant king’s six notorious marriages. We all know how they ended, but how much do we actually know about the women themselves? They are more famous for being the wives of Henry VIII, and failing to produce male heirs, than they are for being powerful queens of England.
Six aims to redress this, remixing history to tell the stories of the incredible women who have been relegated to a single word in a poem, reduced to just one of six. In this show, these six, badass queens take back the microphone and history is about to get overthrown.
Wrapped up in the pretence of a popularity contest, to see who is the audience’s favourite, each queen is given their own song. The songs themselves are fantastic, contemporary, and span several genres, deftly altering the mood, and brilliantly reflecting the personality of each queen. They are catchy and energetic with lyrics that are amusing, yet factual and educative. As soon as I got home from the theatre, I added the soundtrack to my ‘musicals’ playlist, and have been listening to it on repeat since.
First up is Catherine of Aragon (Lauren Drew). Divorced. Her song, ‘No Way’, proves her stoic defiance in the face of being replaced by a younger woman, having her marriage annulled, and threatened with being sent to a nunnery. Married to Henry VIII for 24 years, her reputation was dragged through the mud when she failed to have a son. Rather than make Catherine into a victim, Six turns her into a strong, independent woman, who playfully enjoys stealing the limelight.
Henry’s second wife is undoubtedly the most famous of the six, Anne Boleyn (Maddison Bulleyment). Beheaded. Her catchphrase, “Sorry, not Sorry!”, appears on the show’s merchandise, a testament of her character’s popularity with fans. Flirtatious, rebellious, and infamous, Anne Boleyn’s song is aptly named ‘Don’t Lose Your Head’. Her story is given a modern revamp, as her contentious comments in court go viral, causing uproar. Bulleyment plays Boleyn perfectly, giving the Tudor queen a feisty, punk-rock edge.
Next up is Jane Seymour (Lauren Byrne). Died. Known as the only wife that Henry truly loved, probably because she gave birth to a son, Seymour is given a beautifully tender ballad, ‘Heart of Stone’. Undoubtedly delivering the standout performance of the evening, Byrne’s stunning vocals perfectly capture the intense emotion of her song. Several people wept as Byrne sang about Seymour’s unbreakable love for her husband. It is an utterly breathtaking, heart-wrenching performance that rightfully received tumultuous applause from the audience.
The mood drastically shifts for Anna of Cleeves (Shekinah McFarlane). Divorced. She is personally my favourite queen in Six. Everybody knows that she was brutally rejected by Henry VIII, when her beauty didn’t live up to her portrait. Anna of Cleeves’ story is radically updated to a Tinder date. After Henry swipes right, it is revealed that Anna looks nothing like her profile picture. Her song, ‘Get Down’, tells that although divorced, she was living a life of luxury in Richmond Palace. McFarlane’s sassy dance moves show how Cleeves became a “playa” in the Tudor court.
Henry VIII’s fifth wife was Katherine Howard (Alicia Tyra Corrales-Connor). Beheaded. She is often overlooked by history, with most forgetting her name. Not for long, thanks to the superb debut of Corrales-Connor, whose unforgettable song, ‘All You Wanna Do’ depicts how Howard was used and abused by several courtiers. Throughout the song, she is uncomfortably groped by the other queens, powerfully suggesting that she was sexually assaulted. Naively believing that each man would be different, she was cruelly beheaded by Henry for being unchaste. Profound and shocking, Howard’s story was unknown to me. I certainly won’t forget it.
Finally, it’s Catherine Parr (Athena Collins). Survived. Parr is well known for being the survivor, but the fact that she was highly educated, and the first woman in England to publish books under her own name, is forgotten. It is fantastic to see Parr take centre stage, after many centuries being sidelined. Crucially, it is Parr who delivers the defiant message that rather than be one of six, competing for popularity, the queens should unite and celebrate their achievements. It’s a bold display of female empowerment that is uplifting and inspirational.
Alongside the six queens are four supremely talented musicians, Arlene McNaught, Vanessa Domonique, Frankie South, and Kat Bax. It is refreshing to see an all-female band performing the soundtrack to a touring stage musical. It is something I have never witnessed before, and I hope it signals a change for future musical productions. From rocking bass-riffs to Tudor techno music, complete with neon ruffs and sunglasses in the ‘Haus of Holbein’, it’s a fabulous soundtrack, and the band are clearly having a blast performing it.
The production design is equally spectacular, with gorgeous outfits that are colour coded for each queen. Contemporary, yet strikingly influenced by Tudor fashion, Gabriella Slade‘s costume design is sublime. Covered in sequins and bling, the clothing is as glamorous as the queens themselves. I particularly love the fact that each queen’s microphone matches the colours of their costume.
With theatres struggling to entice young audiences, Six proves that this can be achieved. The fandom that surrounds this production is extraordinary, as hordes of teenage girls watch the show several times, with audience members cosplaying as their favourite queen, and singing along to the songs. It was delightful to see young people actively involved in watching theatre, although I have never felt so old in my life!
Running at 75 minutes, without an interval, Six feels a little short. However, it achieves a great deal during this time. It’s a superb musical, with a cracking soundtrack and spectacular production design. It is perfectly performed by the entire cast and musicians. Most importantly, it defiantly exhibits female empowerment, revealing the remarkable stories of six inspirational, badass Tudor queens of England.