Mon 6th April 2020

The Queens of Edinburgh Festival Theatre

Text by: 

Emma Porter

Photo by: 
Photo by Johan Persson, 2019 Tour Cast

It’s the show that surprised us all. Three years ago, it was a mere idea in the minds of Cambridge students Tony Marlow and Lucy Moss. Now, despite being only 75 minutes long, it’s gained a place on the West End, on Broadway, won the 2019 What’sOnStage Award for Best Off-West End Production and was nominated for five Olivier Awards.

It’s Six the Musical - and I got the chance to see its tour production at Edinburgh Festival Theatre.

The story follows the six wives of Henry VIII, re-imagined as a girl group in town for one night only. The inexplicably resurrected queens are in competition with each other for the ‘lead’ position in the group, each presenting their story of their time with Henry VIII in order to capture hearts and gain the crown.

Rather than a traditional show, Six acts more like a concert. Whilst this could go horribly wrong, Six manages this concept with remarkable aplomb from before the show starts. Pre-show, jaunty pop-songs in Tudor court style piano are played in the venue, setting an exciting, anticipatory atmosphere. Within the show, the Queens constantly address the audience, as well as each other, bringing the audience into the narrative, encouraging a relationship and investment with the characters they only vaguely know about from their history books.

The ‘Ladies-in-Waiting’ live-band are often interacted with, as much a character as the Queens, creating a cohesive concert-like feel. Audience participation in the form of cheers, whistles and applause were liberally used, and you’re even able to record the final ‘Mega Six’ performance (though how stable your phone will be while you are dancing is a mystery), whilst a queen performs a phone-grab.

Six is a show like no other.

Listening purely to the recording beforehand, I thought I knew the show. Whilst some songs such as ‘Don’t Lose Your Head’ captured interest, the main reaction when listening to ‘Haus of Holbein’ was: what the hell? I came away from the recording thinking I knew everything. Big mistake.

Six has a plethora of nuances, jokes and subtle choreography which all craft a story that cannot be told through the recording alone. Through watching the show, the songs all make sense. ‘Haus of Holbein’ fits in perfectly after the heart-wrenching ‘Heart of Stone’ to uplift the mood. The subtle choreography of ‘All You Wanna Do’ expresses the trauma of Katherine Howard’s experiences beautifully, adding emotional complexity to a performance which has all the potential to be shallow. Minimal set is well-designed by Emma Bailey and complemented by superb lighting and costume design by Tim Deiling and Gabriella Slade respectively, bringing the show together.

Whilst the whole cast was phenomenal, particular stand-outs include Lauren Drew (Catherine of Aragon), Jen Caldwell (Anne Boleyn), and Shekinah McFarlane (Anna of Cleves). Drew hits the comic moments and high notes with equal pizzazz whilst Caldwell was magnificent as Boleyn, bringing energy and fun to the light-hearted role. However, the star for me was McFarlane as Anna of Cleves, who plays the role with such sass and glee – her performance of ‘Get Down’ was a masterpiece – and was just so clearly enjoying the moment and embodying her character to the max. It was one of my favourite parts of the show.

People have said many things about the short run-time. However, Six doesn’t need to be any longer than it is. It packs a powerful and much-needed punch, cutting out the unnecessary fat to produce a concise and clear message of survival and resilience.

Of course, like all productions Six does have its flaws. Some of the lyrics can be cringey – ‘Haus of Holbein’ is a particular offender here. (No matter how much of a bop it can be, I can never get over the ridiculousness of the refrain “Das ist gut, ooh ja!”) The plot conclusion at the end also appears slightly too rushed and less nuanced than the rest of the show.

A lot of the success of the performance also depends on audience participation which, for a show less funny or impactful, might be an issue if you get a non-receptive audience. However, this element never managed to take away from Six’s powerful and emphatic message of female empowerment. Rather than being purely part of “HIS-tory”, the Queens successfully take back their story and remind us of the agency of females, especially relevant in today’s climate.

Six may be a show that needs to be experienced to be wholly understood – but what an experience! Get tickets for the tour – if you can after corona, and you won’t regret it.

Due to the Covid-19 situation, ‘Six’, like all other productions, has had to halt its tour. This review was based on their production at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre from the 4th-9th February 2020. More information about the production can be found on their website: https://www.sixthemusical.com/