by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss
Directed by Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage
Vaudeville Theatre – open-ended run
As it sashays triumphantly towards it’s fifth birthday in the West End, with sister companies selling out nightly on Broadway and across the US, the UK and Australia, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s rampant musical-concert hybrid, celebrating/commemorating the wives of Henry VIII, is an inspiring success story. I doubt they ever have to take down the Haus (House) Full sign from outside the Vaudeville Theatre where this glossed-up, spangled version of Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage’s staging has taken up residence probably until such time as Hell freezes over…and rightly so. The show’s notoriety, both for being a riotously good night out and a tough ticket to get hold of, is a far cry from the student skit this entertainment phenomenon started out as.
After numerous cast changes (if anybody’s counting, London’s now onto it’s third Aragon, fourth Boleyn, second Seymour and Cleves, fifth Howard and fourth Parr, and that’s not including covers), the West End version remains in decent condition, although it feels like it could use a little bit of fine-tuning. While the current team of performers inhabiting Gabriella Slade’s dazzling (and now Tony award winning) rhinestone and metal studded Tudor-meets-Steampunk costumes certainly don’t drop the crowns from their predecessors, there are moments when it feels as though they would benefit from stronger direction. The voices are all terrific, the harmonies and execution of Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s pop video-ready choreography are crisp; but not every zinger lands, and there are moments where an emotional depth that was previously there seems to be slightly compromised in favour of virtuosic riffing and a determination to meticulously recreate the now-iconic queenly poses from the poster (back arched, fingers splayed on an arm outstretched behind, microphone aloft and head thrown back in an ecstasy of belting). For all Six’s pretensions to being a concert, Marlow and Moss have created a genuinely witty script with a surprising undertow of real feeling. At present, it is undoubtedly fabulous entertainment, but it could, and can, be a little more.
What’s interesting to note as the run continues is how each new Queen gets to put her/their own stamp on the role. Some long running shows tend to succumb to “cookie cutter” casting, whereby each new company replicates what the last umpteen casts did to the extent that a certain blandness and lack of flavour can start to set in. Here though the current Queens bring their own vibrant personalities and attitudes to bear on Marlow and Moss’s witty, sometimes heartbreaking, creations, although in a couple of cases the characterisations could be more specific, an issue I suspect may have more to do with the way they have been directed than with the unquestionably stellar talents on stage.
Still, there is a heck of a lot to enjoy: if molasses had a sound it would be Rhianne-Louise McCaulsky’s thrilling vocals as an authentically diva-esque Catherine of Aragon, and Baylie Carson’s Australian accent adds an irresistible comic piquancy to their bouncy, cheeky, likeable Anne Boleyn. Claudia Kariuki invests Jane with welcome gravitas and a heart-meltingly gorgeous rangy belt, and also gets one of the funniest moments as Seymour reacts to Boleyn’s observation that she can’t dance (patently untrue, but even if it were, Kariuki’s voice would more than compensate).
As a show-stopping Anna of Cleves, Dionne Ward-Anderson is supercool where the role’s originator, Alexia McIntosh, was all irresistible warmth, but she is very very funny as she nips all the regal competitiveness in the bud by repeatedly declaring just how wonderful her life is, plus her lightning fast switches between inscrutably still and ragingly bonkers are a joy to behold. Koko Basigara cuts a more fragile figure than her predecessors as Katherine Howard and finds a fascinating, and necessarily disturbing, contrast between her bravado (“I think we can all agree / I’m the ten amongst these threes”) and the immeasurable damage done to a young woman by a short life of systemic abuse. She’s sexy and sassy but it’s her vulnerability that sticks in the memory as she makes something magnetic and haunting out of ‘All You Wanna Do’, the astonishing solo number which starts out as a fun dance track but darkens to leave her, and us, totally winded. Roxanne Couch is a lovable, vocally assured Catherine Parr, the one who outlived Henry, and probably the most relatable of all the Queens.
It’s also worth noting again that what’s nightly rocking the Vaudeville to its foundations is a subtly different beast from the production that began at the Arts in 2018. Having conquered Chicago, New York, Australasia and the High Seas, Six now has more of an assured swagger and opulence, as well as a considerably larger budget. Part of this will also be due to the weight of expectation: when it first appeared up at the Edinburgh Festival, the show was a wonderful surprise, but now everybody goes in knowing it’s reputation and expecting a party….and, by Henry, do they get one. The show’s warm heart, biting contemporary wit and powerfully female-centric agenda remain the same, but much of the dressing (Emma Bailey’s set, Gabriella Slade’s aforementioned costumes, Tim Deiling’s lighting and Paul Gatehouse’s sound design) is now slicker and brighter. The audience, for the most part, behave as though they are at a stadium rock concert.
Despite the minor reservations regarding detail in the direction of the current iteration, Six remains one of the best times you can have in a West End theatre. A glittering, primary coloured, bombastically full-throated paean to female empowerment and survival, packed with great songs and crowd-pleasing moments. The thought of this ever closing is roughly akin to the idea of the ravens leaving the Tower of London.