Illustration by Ben Beechener
Unapologetic girl-power is absolutely needed in London’s West End, where female characters are (frustratingly) all-too-often reduced to warbling and wailing for a man. While new women such as Hamilton’s Angelica or Hadestown’s Eurydice are making powerful steps forward away from whiny characters like Cosette (I am sorry, Les Mis, but it is true!) their main, and most memorable, songs centre around how they cannot imagine life without their male lover. Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’ Six the Musical promised a decisive move away from this longstanding tradition and boy does it deliver.
Six takes a group of women who have been largely denied independent recognition by history and gives them a much-needed voice. As the girls say themselves in the first song,
‘all you ever hear and read about, is our ex and the way it ended’
As you may have guessed from the title, the ‘Six’ are the six wives of the English Tudor monarch Henry VIII. Now this is a controversial choice on the parts of Marlow and Moss, especially given just how present Tudor history is in the English high school curriculum. I literally think I did the Tudors more than any historical period, the twisted dysfunctional family made up over ¼ of all my GCSE and A-Level history qualifications. Much as I loved the ‘divorced, beheaded, died’ song when I was seven, I was sick to death of it come eighteen (and I think a lot of English kids share this sentiment). Given the statement Six is trying to make about female empowerment and the female reclamation of a misogynistic writing of history, there are so many less well-known women that Marlow and Moss could have chosen. As a medieval literature student, I’m still waiting for Margery Kempe, The Musical…I feel like I will be waiting a while.
That being said, what Six does with these six wives is brilliant and joyous to watch. Yes, they talk about Henry – because thanks to historical sexism we don’t know all that much about their marriages – but the portraits painted of this famous king are far from forgiving. The musical’s premise is dead (excuse the awful pun) simple: suspend disbelief and imagine that Henry’s six wives got together for an hour-long bitch session about their useless and seemingly thuggish husband. It’s fabby, it has all the vibes of a sixth-form common room on a Friday afternoon. The songs – written as tributes to icons in female pop music – are each woman’s individual pitch to prove she has been done the dirtiest by history (with a random German Eurovision-style tribute to Hans Holbien thrown in for good measure, because, why not?) and gosh some of the lyrics are genius!
So, let’s look at our Six:
Katherine of Aragon
Iconic lyric – ‘you made me a wife, so I’ll be queen to the end of my life’
Marlow and Moss’s ‘Beyonce’ of the group, the first Katherine brings all the sass and class. Love Island’s women could really take some lessons from her when it comes to handling rejection. Her pitch for mistreatment takes the form of the fierce and feisty ‘No Way’, which sees her protest her husband’s ‘running around with some pretty young thing’. In history lessons we learn that Katherine of Aragon was this passive figure who just fell apart when her husband got into bed with Anne Boleyn. The song reimagines all those moments where she fought back, all those defiant ‘no ways’ that were undoubtedly spoken (let’s be real they were probably shouted). This no-nonsense Katherine of Aragon is the one girls really should be seeing in their history lessons.
Queen moment – ‘her or me chum, don’t wanna be some girl in a threesome, are you blind’
I fell in love with Anne Boleyn’s pop-punk Lily Allen inspired space buns the moment she entered the stage. It is impossible not to love her when her opening line is ‘I broke England from the church, yeah I’m that sexy’. Where she lacks the poise and charisma of Katherine of Aragon, she makes up for it in cheek and spunk. I just adore her confidence in her own beauty and intelligence. Her ability to laugh in the face of beheading is quite brilliant, especially when she starts making jokes about Henry’s impotence. It really is difficult not to ‘Lose your Head’ over this iconic reimagining of Henry’s second wife.
Yes!!! lyric – ‘you can build me up, you can tear me down, you can try but I’m unbreakable’
Some would say she is the most boring of Henry’s wives. The others even make a joke about it in the musical, mocking how she is the one who got everything: the loving husband, the heir to the throne, the luxury of dying naturally. Except Jane’s song ‘Heart of Stone’ – a tribute to Adele’s effortless vocals – evidences how dying in childbirth really isn’t a luxury at all. Jane’s stalwart fidelity to her husband and unwavering commitment to their marriage is tragic when you consider how she ended up literally giving her life for it. Her observation that ‘without (her) son’ Henry’s love would probably just ‘disappear’ is equally heart-breaking; a timely reminder that women (still) are often treated more like strategies than people.
Anne of Cleves
I mean, come on? lyric – ‘sitting here all alone, on a throne, in a palace that I happen to own’
With her paying tribute to Rihanna, it is arguably impossible for Anne of Cleves (pronounced Anna, as a subtle reclaiming of her Dutch heritage) to be anything but iconic. Her song, ‘Get Down’, presents a twist on the ‘let’s bitch about how hard our life is’ theme. Instead of whining about how she was done dirty by her husband and by history, Anne sings of the wealth and success she has made for herself in spite of her doomed marriage. It’s a big finger up at the history books that present her as a failure because she couldn’t charm the fat and, then gout-ridden, Henry VIII. I mean, just listen to the lead up to the bridge:
‘no one tell me I need a rich man, doin’ my thing in my palace at Richmond’ !!!!!
Make you think again lyric – ‘I thought this time was different, why did I think he’d be different? But it’s never, ever different’
Written in the wake of the #FreeBritney movement, Katherine’s story is perhaps the most tragic but also the most timely. While she sings it with flair and feistiness, it is a reminder of how young women are continually victimised and mistreated by older men and more importantly, how they may not even realise they are caught up in abuse until it’s too late. Marlow and Moss are careful to make explicit references to Katherine’s age and how it compares to the men she is seeing, and the audience is reminded that this woman was literally a child when she was married. This realisation is needed as it is a fact very often glossed over by history books in an attempt to paint her as this promiscuous femme fatale. The way they stage the moments of ‘All You Wanna Do’ is equally powerful, as Katherine is made to disappear under a dozen climbing hands. Katherine’s story is yet another wake up call to hold people accountable for domestic abuse.
Thank you! moment – ‘why can’t I tell my story, cos in history I’m fixed as one of six. Without him, I disappear’
She is the only of the women who refuses to sing explicitly about the details of her relationship with Henry…yes!!! The Emilie Sande-esque ‘I Don’t Need Your Love’ is a powerful rejection of how history refuses to consider these women as separate in any way from Henry VIII. I can honestly say I learnt more about Katherine Parr, someone who dedicated her life to fighting for female emancipation and education (‘who even got a woman to paint (her) picture’!), from this four-minute song than from fifteen years of Tudor history lessons. That is why Six is such an important and necessary musical, especially for young girls.
As you can probably guess, I am a teeny tiny bit obsessed with the steps forward Six the Musical is making in terms of female representation, not only in theatre but in history. Yes, it still needs some polishing, yes it lacks the precision of the West End greats. But for what it lacks in finesse, it makes up in how it unapologetically celebrates female identity and independence. For that, I couldn’t be more grateful to Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss.
(Six has reopened at the Lyric Theatre in London’s West End and will be moving to the Vaudeville on the 29th September. For all those not based in London (it perennially frustrates me how Southern-centred theatre is, grrr) a tour is planned for all over the UK and Ireland for early next year. As West End theatre goes, it is spectacularly well priced. The soundtrack is also pretty amazing and is available on all good music streaming services.)