Caragh Medlicott reviews Six, the acclaimed musical currently playing at Wales Millennium Centre telling the stories of Henry VIII’s six wives in the form of a pop concert.
Not quite being able to remember the names of the six wives of Henry VIII has long been a bugbear of mine. In Trivial Pursuit and pub quizzes, my mind goes blank and I always seem to get stuck halfway through. Who came after the milky faced Jane Seymour…? Anne of something, another Catherine, and then that one who wore a feathered cap. What’s never obscured, of course, is the pattern of their coming and going in the life of King Henry VIII – (sing it with me) divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. These are women defined by their relationship to one of history’s most notorious arseholes. And yes, they’re absolutely due a revisit. Luckily for us, the award-winning West End musical, Six, does exactly that – and in full, glitzy, Europop glory, no less. I can safely say that the names of all six women will be forever emblazoned in my brain henceforth. As will the frankly incredible outfits.
Before taking flight as a professional production on the West End and Broadway, Six began life at the Edinburgh Fringe, presented by Cambridge University students with music and lyrics from Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss. A musical for the post-Hamilton era, it is big on the historical pop numbers and low on dialogue. Its success has been huge (decorated with Oliviers and sold-out tour dates), and while there’s certainly an odd nod for the Tudor aficionado, this is first and foremost about the thrill and performance of full throttle pop; expect to find as many Spice Girls references as Greensleeves ones.
Built around the simple premise of a race to the bottom competition, each wife is given a turn to prove exactly why they were given the roughest deal by marrying Henry. The cast appear on the Donald Gordon Theatre stage to a chorus of whoops (Six is known for its devotee fans), and – in true gig style – a big “hellooooo Cardiff”. In Beyonce-worthy getup styled with a Renaissance twist (the neon ruffs in ‘Haus of Holbein’ are particularly memorable), each wife offers their own comical and occasionally tragic recount of their marriage to the execution-happy monarch via addictive pop anthems. With impeccable choreography and a hatload of cheeky anachronisms ranging from social media lingo to dating app fodder (“sorry not sorry… don’t lose your head” sings Anne Boylen. “You said that I tricked ya, ‘cause I didn’t look like my profile picture” quips Anne of Cleaves).
It’s a testament to the energy of the cast, and the plethora of earworm choruses, that six women and a band can hold the audience without the theatrical trappings and story arcs of a typical musical. It succeeds, too, in adding (if not substance) then at least colour to every wife while still giving a nod and a wink to the fact that pop culture has typically favoured some over others. Anne of Cleves arguably has one of the best numbers with “Get Down” – eerily reminiscent of Lorde’s “Royals” – it reimagines one of history’s most infamous rejections as a great escape into a life of luxury lived sans King. Undoubtedly, Six hangs its glittery hat on an uncomplicated brand of girl power feminism, and yet it would feel unduely cynical to linger on this fact.
Between the songs, catty remarks and bantering soon gives way to low-level feminist revelations. Some feel tongue in cheek (“herstory” for “history”) and others perhaps a little sloppy (many a historian would consider the suggestion that politics wasn’t Anne Boylen’s “thing” a severe case of blasphemy). Yet, it’s all in keeping with what is ultimately a feelgood production not concerned with the ambitious revisionism of Hamilton, or the fact-feeding didacticism of Horrible Histories (who have, incidentally, been making musical histories long before either production). So don’t come to Six expecting intricate sing-song breakdowns of the Reformation, but do come in your most extravagant outfit with lungfuls of air ready to belt out the final number. Ridiculous and delightful, Six is a musical worth losing your head over.
Six is currently playing at Wales Millenium Centre.