by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss
Directed by Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage.
Vaudeville Theatre – open-ended run
Historically, some of musical theatre’s most phenomenal successes have emerged from unexpected sources: an antiquated novel about miscegenation and lost theatrical milieus (Showboat), a hokey play set in a rural American dust bowl (Oklahoma!), Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet transplanted to 1950s New York (West Side Story), an anthology of children’s poetry (Cats) or a classic French epic tackling injustice and revolution (Les Misérables). On paper, none of these sound likely to provoke queues round the block let alone become globally acclaimed triumphs inspiring dozens of imitations of varying quality. Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s dazzling musical-concert hybrid Six, celebrating/commemorating the wives of Henry VIII, is another such example: what sounds gimmicky at best in theory, turns out in practise to be a rip roaring triumph.
The glossed-up, spangled version of Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage’s staging that has now taken up residence (probably until such time as Hell freezes over) at the Vaudeville is a subtly different beast from the production that packed out the tiny Arts Theatre from 2018 until the pandemic. Having conquered Broadway (seriously, good luck with trying to get a seat for the NYC Six without having to pony up a couple of hundred dollars) and Australia, the London show, technically more elaborate and clearly on a bigger budget than when it first opened, now has a new swagger and opulence. Part of this is the weight of expectation: when it first appeared up at the Edinburgh Festival, Six was a wonderful surprise, but now everybody goes in knowing it’s reputation and expecting a good time…. and, by God, do they get one.
What’s so lovely to note though is that the show’s warm heart, contemporary but biting wit and powerfully female-centric agenda remain fully intact, even as much of the dressing (Emma Bailey’s set, Gabriella Slade’s costumes, Tim Deiling’s lighting and Paul Gatehouse’s sound design) becomes slicker and brighter. If anything, this version may be the most satisfying yet, as though Armitage, Moss and their team of directing associates have gained confidence to further mine the darker aspects of the women’s stories.
There seems to be more authentic emotion in Jane Seymour’s soaring Adele-like ballad ‘Heart Of Stone’ than ever before, more genuine distress in Katherine Howard’s astonishing ‘All You Wanna Do’ (a breathtaking examination of systemic emotional and physical abuse couched in an increasingly creepy dance track, brilliantly choreographed by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille) and more urgency and agency in the women’s bickering and fallings out. The entertainment level is sky high, but so are the emotional stakes: the title song that closes the show where the Queens briefly articulate an alternative reality where their lives were less grim has a real poignancy now that actually enhances the joy of all the fist-pumping exhilaration.
An entire new company take over soon but it was a pleasure to get one last glimpse of Jarneia Richard-Noel’s adorably stroppy Aragon, Alexia McIntosh’s barnstorming Cleeves and Sophie Isaac’s thrillingly steely but vulnerable Howard. The alternates and swings get on a lot – the show is a relentless workout for it’s cast plus there’s a nine performance schedule per week – and, at the recent performance I caught, half of the Queens were covers, and they were all sensational: Cherelle Jay as a sassy comic Boleyn, Hana Stewart belting the roof off the theatre as Parr and a luminously beautiful Seymour in Collette Guitart. The standard of talent involved is stellar, and I can’t wait to go back and see the next team. Despite delivering the same script, songs and staging as each other, it’s fascinating to watch how each performer brings their own stuff to each role, keeping the show endlessly fresh. I also suspect it’s just a matter of time before Six fields it’s first trans Queen, since the show is already a beacon of diversity in an industry that is still struggling with that.
If when it first opened, the excitement, snap and brilliance of the show seemed too good to be true, now it really does look built to last. Glorious, uplifting and, yes, regal: it’s thunderously good entertainment, a Coronated crowd-pleasing slice of musical theatre heaven.