Theatre Royal, Sydney, August 30, 2022
She was sitting in the front row of the Theatre Royal stalls, which means she was practically onstage. The young woman was on her own, applauding like mad when she wasn’t paying rapt attention. Her hairstyle featured two little bunches on the top of her head just like those sported by Kala Gare’s Anne Boleyn, which meant she already knew and loved SIX.
That seemed to be true for many in the audience, who laughed and cheered and screamed with huge enjoyment. Any why not? It’s exuberant, whip-smart entertainment with a point to make.
Not everyone would have seen music-theatre potential in the many wives of Henry VIII but Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, 20-something brainiacs who were at Cambridge University together, liked the idea of putting the women centre stage to tell how it was from their perspective.
You might know the rhyme “divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived” but can you put all the names in the right places? Do you know all the names?
Marlow and Moss – they are responsible for SIX’s book, lyrics and music – took on the righteous task of correcting the record with unstoppable glee. They threw 21st-century attitude and pop cultural references over a short, sharp lesson in 16thcentury sexual politics and somehow came up with a knowing, witty, bawdy show that also does stuff like explaining at speed how the Church of England came to be founded. Halfway through there’s a German techno send-up – hilarious – that celebrates the famous portrait painter Hans Holbein. Yes, it’s that kind of show.
Australia got its first taste of SIX in early 2020 when it premiered in the Studio at the Sydney Opera House. It earned every bit of its capital-letter swagger then and still does. The structure is simplicity itself. There’s a contest between the six wives as to whose life was the worst, an ultra-thin pretext that gives each her moment to shine in songs that take their inspiration – or Queenspiration as it’s come to be known – from the likes of superstars Beyoncé, Adele, Rhianna, Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus.
There are no shrinking violets here it goes without saying. The show starts boisterously and keeps going from there, helped in no small measure by the cracking onstage band led by music director Claire Healy on keys. Gabriella Slade’s cheeky, Tudor-forward costumes and Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s indefatigable choreography play their part in ramping up the volume to 15. It’s huge fun.
The only downer is that Marlow and Moss felt it necessary to add earnest pieties from Catherine Parr at the end (she’s the one who survived Henry), even though SIX has already amply demonstrated its thesis.
Vidya Makan as Parr was in the original Australian cast as were Kala Gare, Loren Hunter (Jane Seymour) and Kiana Daniele (Anna of Cleves). The newcomers are Phoenix Jackson Mendoza as Catherine of Aragon and Chelsea Dawson as Catherine Howard. On the night I saw SIX Anna of Cleves was played by swing Chiara Assetta, who is also SIX’s dance captain. She was phenomenal, as was Daniele when seen in 2020. Two things are apparent: Anna of Cleves is a gift of a part in the right hands and swings are indispensable to live performance now COVID-19 seems to have taken up long-term residence.
The third apparent thing? SIX is bottled lightning.
After the Sydney run SIX transfers to Perth from November 24 and Brisbane from December 30 with performances in New Zealand to follow.