“Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived”.
Most of us are familiar with the rhyme. We may know their names, some of us may even have learnt about them during our GCSEs. But how much do we really know about the six wives of Henry VIII?
‘Six The Musical’, written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, addresses this by telling Herstory – the individual stories of each Queen, doing so in the form of a pop concert, in which the Queens form a girl band.
With wide public and critical acclaim, and five Oscar nominations (including Best New Musical) under its belt, Six continues to play to sold-out audiences in London, and has recently announced a UK tour, a run on Broadway, runs overseas, even a run on the sea.
The musical plays like a competition between the Queens, as each competes to find out which of them is the favourite, the Queen of Queens, by comparing their struggles and attempting to ascertain which of them has suffered the most.
Expect riffs, ruffs, wits and puns in a musical you are sure to lose your head over!
These Queens are here to get down, and they’re not sorry.
It is all too easy to see the wives of Henry VIII as a collective, to label them, and think no more about it. They are often compared, linked by the one thing they have in common – they were all married to Henry. ‘Six’ establishes their individuality, their separate identities, and all are equalised and heard as they do themselves justice.
Live music is provided throughout the concert by the Ladies In Waiting band, whose music weaves pop-style tunes with the occasional traditional melody you might recognise, like Tudor favourite Greensleeves. Admirably, the band is introduced to the audience at the beginning of the performance, and applauded at the end, enabling us to give due credit to the musicians.
Gabriella Slade’s costume design is magnificent. Each Queen has her own colour theme, which runs through her costume, and her accessories. There is a practicality to the costume, as the Queens are here with a purpose, but the design is stunning to look at, bejewelled, dazzling, befitting of royalty. With traditional ruffs and puffed sleeves incorporated, these Tudor Queens are given a modern makeover.
The show has proven itself to be a model example in its use of alternates. The cast features several alternates, all of whom are ready to step into a role, often with only a moment’s notice. All cast members are guaranteed performances, sometimes switching up the roles, they are respected and treated equally, by those involved in the show and by the public, and it doesn’t get fairer than that.
These Queens might be in competition with one another, but vocally and choreographically, the cast members support each other perfectly, backing each other during their solo songs, and harmonising beautifully during group numbers. Individually, their excellent vocals, sharp movement and animated personalities are a delight.
Catherine of Aragon was first married to Henry’s older brother Arthur, but after his death, she was married off to Henry, and remained married to him for 24 years. During this time, she was a loyal and devoted wife, supportive, doing everything in her power to ensure his happiness. In all respects, she was a good wife. When he met Anne, however, Henry sought a divorce from Catherine, claiming that their union was cursed, as they had disobeyed the bible commandment that a man should not covet his brother’s wife, and suggested this to be the reason Catherine had not provided him with a male heir. In her last day of performances in the show, Grace Mouat is wonderful as Catherine, boldly maintaining her innocence and proudly defending herself. There is no way she is leaving Henry without a fight.
Anne Boleyn, perhaps the best known of Henry’s wives today, certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons. Henry pursued her for seven years, but not content with simply becoming just another of Henry’s mistresses, she encouraged him to divorce Catherine and marry her. When the Pope would not support this, Henry broke from the Catholic Church. Once married to Anne, Henry continued to flirt with others. When she did the same, he was enraged. Collette Guitart is impressive as Anne Boleyn, the wife who was famously beheaded. An alternate, and one who has only been in the show for just a few weeks, Guitart gives a seasoned performance, with an element of the cheeky cunning shown by a woman who tried to get ahead, but ended up losing her head in the process.
Jane Seymour is known for being the only wife Henry truly loved, and she loved him in return. Jane was the only one to give Henry a son, but she tragically died in childbirth, and so did not see her little prince grow up. Unlike the other Queens, Jane tells us that she did not argue or fight with Henry, and gave him no cause to do so in return. Therefore, their marriage was a relatively happy and peaceful one, with love on both sides. She looks to see the good in Henry, and encourages his other wives to do the same. Courtney Stapleton is marvellous in the role, displaying a gentle, meek and humble persona, but one with an inner strength. Her performance of ‘Heart of Stone’ is incredibly moving, so tender and raw and, far from having a heart of stone herself, Stapleton pours emotion into a song that bears a certain amount of weight as we reflect on the tragedy of her tale.
It is often argued that Anna of Cleves was the best off of Henry’s wives. Despite being rejected for her looks (painter Hans Holbein was accused of flattering her in his portrait, and she therefore didn’t live up to Henry’s expectations in real life), after her divroce from Henry, he treated her as a sister, and she wanted for nothing, living a comfortable life with a good and steady income, in palatial residences. Alexia McIntosh’s sassy Anna is well aware of this, and often breaks into bouts of laughter when considering her good fortune. She disagrees with Henry on the question of her portrait and, confident and comfortable, she wants to hang it where everybody can see. McIntosh paints a great portrait of this Queen.
Katherine Howard has been involved with several men, many of whom were several years her senior. Each time, she claims she felt a connection, and believed each one was ‘different’. However, they were only after one thing. She felt they had something special, but no relationship she had proved to be meaningful. She was simply an object of men’s lust – they would have their way with her, and cast her aside. Henry was another man that lusted after her, and married her. For her promiscuity, she too was beheaded. Aimie Atkinson is fabulous – seductive, playful and fiery, but there is also a vulnerability imbued in the character when she tells us of her treatment at the hands of men.
Catherine Parr is often simply referred to as the one who survived, and we can therefore assume that she had it easy. However, there is more to her than meets the eye. Parr lost a number of husbands in death, but each time found she must remarry in order to survive as a woman in Tudor England. She, like most, was dependent on men for support, security and stability, and had no means of surviving alone. After meeting the love of her life, Thomas, she was forced to send him a letter breaking off their engagement, as she was to become the next unwitting wife of Henry. Maiyah Quansah-Breed shows great passion, determination, grit and resolve, and a firm dignity as she is compelled by the other Queens to sing of her hardships.
Catherine Parr is reluctant to sing in the competition, because she does not want to be remembered for the struggles she was forced to endure. There is more to her, more to all of them, than that. They are more than the rhyme they are remembered by. She asks her fellow Queens for the names of the wives of previous monarchical Henry’s, and she receives no correct answer. So often, women like this fade into history, recalled only through the achievements, successes and failures of their husbands. ‘Six’ ensures these women are remembered, and will continue to be remembered, for their own achievements, and teaches us what each had to endure, which only increases respect and heartfelt admiration for these remarkable women.
A fitting legacy that will stand to immortalise these great Queens and extraordinary women, ‘Six’ reigns supreme as the West End’s crowning glory.