six top

Six

Malvern Theatres

*****

It might give mathematicians the vapours, but I reckon five goes into Six quite nicely, at least when it comes to stars.

It is an absolute delight, a night of unbridled theatrical bliss to lift the spirits of any jaded reviewer.

An original, witty, clever, polished British musical, with some cracking songs, a wonderful cast and a classy on-stage band.

And, almost unheard of these days, I know, it is not even based on some hit Hollywood film or best-selling novel, in fact Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss actually thought of an idea, something new – well pretty old, sort of, if you consider we start in 1509 – and they turned it into a brilliant musical.

Not only that, it has no soap stars, no one from X factor or its ilk, just a cast of six oh so talented women who can sing, dance and make you laugh with one liners, wicked asides and impeccable timing.

And it is all done at a breakneck pace in a musical which is short and sweet, much like Henry VIII’s marriages, six in 38 years: and as the first, Catherine of Aragon, racked up 24 years (1509-1533) and he had three years wifeless, some of the rest were not so much marriages as conjugal visits – apart from Anne of Cleves of course, which was just a visit, or at least that’s what it said on annulment.

We open with a sort of battle of the sixes, and the mantra, divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived, with his assorted spouses inviting the audience to be the judges in a sort of who had the worst deal in the Tudor wedding stakes popularity contest.

First up is Catherine of Aragon, with the leggy and serious(ish) Lauren Drew, Aragon apparently being a part of Wales in the early 16th century. The widow of Henry’s late brother Arthur, she was the longest wed of the sextet, and what an appropriate word that is on all counts in this instance, and she tells her tale in pop style with No Way.

With no son and heir produced, and Henry now having the hots for Anne Boleyn, she was dumped, as was the Pope for not agreeing to the divorce, so come 1533 and we had a new queen, Anne Boleyn in the shape of the rather flirty Maddison Bulleyment, and a new church, Henry’s very own and much more compliant Church of England.

Now Anne, who produced the future Queen Elizabeth, always reckoned she had a trump card in the who had it worst game, with beheaded being head and shoulders above, or perhaps in this case, below, divorce, and for six years she might have been right as he tells us in Don’t Lose Ur Head – which sadly she did.

six west end cast

West End cast. Picture: Idil Sukan

As her marriage went to pieces, literally, in came wife number three, Jane Seymour played with a lovely innocence by Lauren Byrne. She was engaged the day after Anne’s death and married 10 days later.

She did her duty and gave Henry the son he craved, the future Edward VI, but died of complications 12 days after the birth. The marriage had lasted less than 18 months, and she was the only wife to be given a queen’s funeral, and perhaps the only one to be mourned. Henry was buried beside her as he had requested.

Byrne had the saddest tale so far, and she also had the song of the show with the emotional power ballad Heart of Stone. That girl can really give a song some wellie and clear as a bell from almost a whisper to full blown anguish.

Her death hit Henry hard, for three years, with celebrity portrait painter Hans Holbein sent off on a scouting mission as a sort of early version of Match.com, which gives us a sort of Kraftwerk does Cabaret with Haus of Holbein.

The result brings in Anna of Cleves, and Shekinah McFarlane, who freely admits her queenie profile picture is . . . flattering (aren’t they all?) and belts out Get Down. The history books seem to miss out just how raunchy Anna was, a sort of Tudor burlesque queen.

Her marriage lasted just six months, but, being the sister of an important foreign political ally, a bit like Catherine of Aragon earlier, Henry couldn’t just call up the local branch of rent-an-axe, so she was given the title of King’s Sister, given two houses and a lottery winner’s allowance to basically keep out of the way.

And when it comes to raunchy, enter Katherine Howard with All You Wanna Do, one the Spice Girls would have been proud of, from Jodie Steele. It was another marriage of less than 18 months, and while most agree Anne Boleyn was stitched up on trumped up sex charges, with Katherine . . . well, she said goodbye to her head more because she was a bit of a slapper, with her two (that we know of) lovers joining her in the hereafter.

It is a lovely performance from Steele as a bimbo with a brain, oozing sexuality as the royal good time girl.

With her rivaling Boleyn for the crown as the worst treated queen – although how either of them would be able to wear it might be a problem - it is left to Athena Collins to bring a little decorum to proceedings. As Catherine Parr she is the last wife, the one who was to become his widow. Her soul inspired number I don’t need your love is another highlight, beautifully sung.

Parr was Henry’s third Catherine and she had had two husbands before Henry, all dying – with Henry completing her hat-trick.

She points out the blazingly obvious, so obvious we probably never even thought about it, that the only reason the six are known at all is because they were married to the serial bridegroom Henry – if you don’t believe it then name the wife of any King of England from William I onwards. His was Matilda of Flanders to give you a start.

Each of the six has an interesting back story, a slice of Tudor life, politics and society, and each had a life and influence beyond being just a notch on Henry’s bedpost, with, for example, Parr, a published author, embroiled in a soap opera of her own, even after his death. All of which brings us to the eponymous song, Six.

The script marries history (just to keep the wedding theme) with some modern language and ideas. The odd word might be lost on those who last got down with the yoof sometime last century, but they were well understood by the huge numbers of young people in the audience, who cheered the cast to the rafters, and what a joy to see them.

They are the next generation of theatregoers, bringing vitality and enthusiasm, and shows like this - new, inventive and different will surely make them want to come back.

Choreography from Carrie-Anne Ingrouille is slick and always interesting, Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage direct with purpose giving every line its due on a clever, simple set from Emma Bailey brought to life with clever use of LED lighting by Tim Deiling.

Musical director Arlene McNaught, on keys, made her excellent band of Venessa Domonique, drums, Frankie South, guitar and Kat Bax on bass sound much bigger than they were.

The show is a refreshingly different delight, it is infectious fun, packing a remarkable amount of actual history and facts into catchy music, with a clever, witty script. In short, it is a piece of theatre magic – don’t miss it. To 02-11-19

Roger Clarke

29-10-19

Six appears at Wolverhampton Grand 10-14 March 2020, Coventry Belgrade 2-7 June, and Birmingham Hippodrome 21-25 July, 2020

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