Courtney Bowman, center, in SIX: The Musical (Photo by Pamela Raith)

'SIX' brings the girl power party back to the West End

Sam Marlowe
Sam Marlowe

The queens are back, and they're beautiful. Since their creation by Cambridge University students Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss in 2017, when they first sashayed before audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, these ritzily reincarnated wives of Henry VIII have stomped their way into the theatre history books. The show - more rock revue than musical - transferred to the West End and became an international hit. Its Broadway opening was delayed by the Covid crisis, but doubtless its conquering of the Great White Way is just a matter of time.

A bedazzling sing-off by six women, each determined to wrest back control of her own narrative, Moss and Jamie Armitage's production is slick, witty, and so frenetically charged that resistance is pretty much useless. What's behind the glitter and the gloss, the astonishing vocals and the seductive strut, is in reality not much more profound than the Spice Girls' rallying cry of "Girl Power": it's a case of clever branding rather than serious substance. But it undeniably works: an audience dominated by young women and girls, many of them watching with their mums, whooped their appreciation, faces glowing. This may be feminism-lite, but it ignites powerful passions.

And as a spectacle, it's eye-poppingly impressive. Emma Bailey's set, lit with blinding, blingy excess by Tim Deiling, is like a medieval chapel relocated to Las Vegas, purple neon in place of stained glass. Backed by an all-female band, the queens, in costume designer Gabriella Slade's mini farthingales or doublet and hose, crystal-encrusted and flesh-flashing, glide, pop and grind through choreographer Carrie-Ann Ingrouille's high-energy, geometric formations, to songs that musically reference a roll call of fabulous divas — Beyonce, Britney, Ariana Grande, Nicky Minaj, Rihanna, and Adele among them. They're here to decide who's life story was the most tragic - and she who had the worst of it will reign supreme.

This is the show's major stumbling, if not chopping, block. Competing to be the biggest victim hardly sounds like empowerment, any more than the catfighting and bitchiness they indulge in; and the last-minute flipflop, in which they claim the whole thing was a set-up designed to make us question our own assumptions, feels like a bit of a cop-out. But if the sexual politics are hazy, the attitude is fierce. The current cast are all phenomenal, but I particularly enjoyed Courtney Bowman's faux-innocent Anne Boleyn, skipping insouciantly through her role in the Reformation via Lily Allen-ish rhymes ("everybody chill, it's totes God's will"), and Sophie Isaacs's Katherine Howard, radiating sparks of fury as she sings about the succession of men who have sexually exploited her.

And there's a glorious sequence of overblown fantasy and pounding German techno when Alexa McIntosh's Anne of Cleves, who was famously (and, according to Henry, too flatteringly) painted by Holbein, recalls visiting the artist in his atelier: "Haus of Holbein" sends up beauty standards ("try these heels, so high it's naughty, but we can't guarantee you'll still walk at 40"), and, with the queens adopting oversized sunglasses and ludicrous posturing, reminded me deliciously of the eccentric, body-fascist fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld.

The songs are insanely catchy, and if subtlety gets gleefully ground beneath the show's rhinestone-studded stiletto heel, that's not what anyone came for anyhow. It isn't profound, but this is a party - and it's unstoppable.

SIX runs through 18 April at the Lyric Theatre, then at the Arts Theatre from 20 April.

Photo credit: Courtney Bowman, center, in SIX: The Musical (Photo by Pamela Raith)

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