Photo credit: Six cast (Photo by Pamela Raith)

'Six' review — there’s no way you should miss the queens’ new home

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Welcome back, Queens! Or rather welcome to your new home. After runs at the West End's Arts and Lyric Theatres, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss's girl-power hit is now happily installed in the Vaudeville, whose intimacy works like a charm for a production fuelled by its relationship with its devoted fans. But you don't have to be a lifelong member of the Queendom to lose your heart (or head) to Six.

Four years on from its Edinburgh Fringe debut, the show still feels like a breath of fresh air. If anything, its challenge to gendered double standards via a reclaiming of "herstory" - Henry VIII's ex-wives have their own say - is even more pertinent post-#MeToo, while "All You Wanna Do" might as well be the Free Britney anthem. But its inventive form is just as revolutionary. Mixing pop concert with theatre, it's a big, joyful welcome to non-traditional audiences and in particular to younger ones, who eagerly whip out their phones to record the finale; rather than fearing social media, Six rules it. It's the jolt of energy that the West End needs.

This is the last hurrah for the current London cast, with a new company coming in shortly. But, watching several excellent alternates last night, I was struck by how generous the production is in allowing new interpretations. That's not always the cast with long-runners, and it bodes well for the show's continued success both here and further afield - its Broadway cast have certainly put a very different stamp on it.

My only niggle is that, as a lover of puns, I was straining to hear all of the witty Tudor wordplay, but that's the trade-off for the exhilarating, liberated performance style. Yet this tightly constructed show could teach other musicals a thing or two about concise storytelling; though it doesn't have a traditional through narrative, the show establishes a clear premise, gives each character a mini arc, and then smartly deconstructs itself - all within 75 minutes.

The latter stage preempts criticism that competing to see who was most traumatised or abused, X Factor style, isn't exactly in the spirit of sisterhood. But the sneaky truth is that we're watching these women support one another all along. Even though they snark, amusingly, they back each queen musically while she lays herself open (along with the phenomenal all-female band). The climactic unity feels earned.

Jarnéia Richard-Noel kicked off proceedings as Catherine of Aragon, all silky-smooth vocals and steely resolve. She's brilliantly juxtaposed with Courtney Bowman's cheeky brat Anne Boleyn. Bowman works the crowd expertly and is the consummate entertainer throughout, adding extra comic touches to every line reading and hip bump.

Delivering the big ballad was Collette Guitart as Jane Seymour. It's tough playing straight man to the quipping divas around you, but when Guitart hits the sweet spots in her range, the heart-wrenching purity silences everything else. As Anna of Cleves, Cherelle Jay brought earthiness to "Get Down," and Sophie Isaacs is clever casting as Katherine Howard. Her diminutive frame emphasises the exploited girl's youth, while Isaacs's fierce performance is a fight for survival.

But, for me, Hana Stewart was the real revelation as Catherine Parr. Her soulful voice and absolute sincerity added new textures to "I Don't Need Your Love" - along with incredible top notes and vocal runs that lit the stage like emotional fireworks. I'm excited to see where all of these performers land next: Six has nurtured such great female talent.

The production is also a true ensemble effort, relying on the company's delivery of Carrie-Anne Ingrouille's smartly varied choreography, as well as its mix of ruffs and riffs, of humour and serious challenge. Gabriella Slade's costumes remain utterly covetable and an efficient, Spice Girls-esque way to differentiate the women, and Emma Bailey's mini arena set, vividly lit by Tim Deiling, is bold framing. You'd need a heart of stone to resist.

Photo credit: Six cast (Photo by Pamela Raith)

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