Review by Suzanne Tate
The musical SIX launched onto the stage in Melbourne this week with explosive power. The high-octane performance was more pop concert than musical in many ways. A stage set for a rock concert, complete with an all-girl band, colourful, sexy costumes with punk-inspired metal spikes, dramatic lighting and six royal pop divas belting out songs that would not sound entirely out of place at one of the ‘Queenspirations’ concerts, such as Ariana Grande or Nicki Minaj. The sound was overwhelming – from both the rock concert soundscape and the VERY enthusiastic audience!
SIX, written by Toby Marlowe and Lucy Moss, is a satirical retelling of the ‘herstory’ of the six wives of Henry VIII, presented as a pop concert. Initially written for Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society’s performance at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2017, it sold out during the festival and was invited back the following year at a larger venue. Performances in the West End and a UK tour followed, then a North American tour and Broadway. And five years later, here we are.
SIX was Co-Directed by Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage, and Choreographed by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille. The choreography was a high point of the show. It used the relatively small space effectively and worked well with the ensemble of six dancers together. It was snappy, modern and exciting, and frequently humorous. The lighting, designed by Tim Deiling was also a focal point of the show. Colourful, dramatic stage lighting as one would expect at a concert, but lighting was also used cleverly to enhance aspects of the set that highlighted the historical connection – light was used to create shapes that suggested majestic castle windows and heraldic devices. Engaging choreography, combined with clever lighting choices and innovative costume also created one of the visual and comedy highlights of the show in the house music inspired ‘Haus of Holbein’, one of the few group numbers. Costume was designed by Gabriella Slade, and won an Off-West End Award for costume in 2019. Early in the show I had noted a distinctly ‘Spice Girls’ vibe to the show (and was amused when the cast made that connection quite explicit moments later) and in a very clear connection, it turns out that Slade was the designer for the Spice World tour in 2019. The costumes really set the mood for the concert style of the show, and the colour coded approach to the costumes for each of the six wives helped the audience keep them straight in their mind. They were glitzy, bright and reflective, working really effectively with the lighting. And clearly an effort was made to give them a suggestion of historical relevance with features such as the shape of a sleeve or collar. But as someone with an interest in historical costuming, I can’t help but feel like Slade missed some opportunities to lean into the historical connection. While the silhouettes clearly paid homage to some aspects of historical dress, they were rarely from anywhere near the appropriate time period. More accurate historical reference could have been combined with the modern pop diva genre just as effectively. I did really appreciate some of the small details however – ‘Bolyn’s’ ‘B’ charm hanging from her choker references a necklace that she can be seen wearing in many portraits. Both ‘Bolyn’ and ‘Howard’ wear chokers to symbolise the fact that they were each beheaded. The many gold chains worn by ‘Aragon’ loosely reference a heavy gold chain seen in several historical portraits of Henry VIII’s first wife, and the square neckline of her dress was the most accurate to the time period. And the small stand-up collar worn by the swing ‘Parr’ bore a resemblance to several dresses worn by Henry VIII’s last wife in her portraits. To the general audience member I admit they would appear to very cleverly combine contemporary, over the top pop-dive genre with clearly recognisable historical features, that produce visually striking shapes.
On opening night, the six wives were played by Phoenix Jackson Mendoza as Catherine of Aragon, Kala Gare as Anne Bolyn, Loren Hunter as Jane Seymour, Kiana Daniele as Anna of Cleves, Chelsea Dawson as Katherine Howard and the swing Shannen Alyce Quan took on the role of Catherine Parr. They each did an exceptional job and were well-suited to the particular vocal style of each character. It was interesting to read in the program the specific ‘Queenspirations’ for each character, ranging from Beyonce, to Avril Lavigne, Sia, Rihanna, Brittney and Alicia Keys. The song writing choices showcased the individual character created for each of the Queens – loyal and steadfast, sexy and confident, loving, independent, hurt and used, and the feminist who points out how they have all been defined entirely by their marriage to the same man. I’m not a huge fan of the ‘vocal gymnastics’ that were a big part of several of the performances, but they certainly suited the play on the Queens as modern-day Pop Princesses and each Queen nailed them, regardless of the vocal difficulty.
If a theatre-goer turned up expecting a musical set in Tudor England, they may get a rude awakening. But if you are someone who enjoys both a night at the theatre or equally an arena spectacular concert, then this is the musical for you. SIX is a show full of humour, exceptional dancing and singing, and boundless energy that will leave you with your heart racing… and your ears ringing!