By Toby Marlow & Lucy Moss, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide – 21 May – 12 June 2022

‘Welcome to the show, to the historemix’ sing the six ex-wives of Henry VIII, introducing the story you think you’ve heard before. Only this time, it’s as an all-female pop sextet, complete with signature costumes, tiaras with attitude, and personalities larger than the king himself.

Combining catchy tunes and snappy lyrics, with a pop-concert history lesson, the core of SIX is an initially playful sing-off to determine which of the ex-wives had the worst experience. This could have dragged by the time you’re halfway through, but writers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss mix up the song styles and freshen the narrative by gradually shifting the focus to the terrible actions of the monarch and his men.

Catherine of Aragon (Phoenix Jackson Mendoza) begins the competition with a Beyonce vibe in ‘No Way’, her voice soaring and punching to the top and back of the auditorium. Then the lady in green steps up, Anne Boleyn (a beautifully and constantly energetic Kala Gare), offering attitude all the way through a Lily Allen-styled ‘Don’t Lose Ur Head’, until Henry arranges for her to do just that – her bold dress topped by a choker to remind us how her marriage ended.

All of the costumes by Gabriella Slade (with Nigel Shaw for the Australia tour) are a sparkly take on more familiar Tudor dress: each ex-wife has an individual theme of colour and style – no two are the same – but these designs are more than just stage-dressing. Each has a representation of the woman’s significance: as well as the choker for Boleyn and Katherine Howard, Catherine Parr’s long pants are a nod to the traditionally male occupation of writing and publishing literature.

Loren Hunter, as third ex-wife Jane Seymour, turns the tone from pop-punk to piano solos in ‘Heart of Stone’. It’s a more thoughtful song, exploring the strength she needed to be loyal to an untameable man, and it works even when it becomes a little abstract, telling of her pain in dying before she can see her son grow up.

The lyrics are sharp and witty throughout (‘Tried to elope, but the Pope said ‘Nope!’’ sings Anne Boleyn) – and more importantly, they’re clear, with a strong narrative progression through the songs. A lot of the melodies are toe-tapping ear-worms, but even when there is the occasional cheesy lyric or note that isn’t quite made, the unified movement of this group is breathtaking. The choreography is excellent, both in design and performance; the six move together as a whole, whilst maintaining their individuality.  Original choreographer Carrie-Anne Ingrouille, with Cristina D’Agostino on this Australian production, set an exceptionally high standard of Broadway flair and West End tight.

The ensemble pump up the tempo again with the house-music ‘Haus of Holbein’, before Anna of Cleves (Kiana Daniele) works the crowd and dominates the stage in ‘Get Down’, poking fun at the King’s irritation that her portrait bore little resemblance to reality - Tudor Tinder was little different than today.

The production design is all sparkle and bright in Emma Bailey’s set, expertly illuminated by Tim Deiling’s lighting. It’s come a long way visually since its premiere as a Fringe show in Edinburgh five years ago, but its premise remains: a story of six women that most of us only knew from our high-school rhyme ‘divorced-beheaded-died, divorced-beheaded-survived’. It’s remarkable how much fun you can have learning history. And whilst artistic licence is taken, SIX has fans in some of the most austere of researchers.

When Katherine Howard (Chelsea Dawson) takes her turn for a solo, the repetitive nature of the ‘competition’ could have tired the story. Howard’s ‘All You Wanna Do’ starts as Ariana Grande-pop, dripping with sexual innuendo, but then brilliantly turning so, so dark. Dawson shows her dramatic range so wonderfully, the slow realisation that ‘it’s never, ever different’ crashes the story to earth. It’s no longer something that happened six hundred years ago, it’s what’s still being inflicted on women today by men in power.

Catherine Parr (Vidya Makan) sensibly challenges the whole premise of the ‘competition’, and her song’ I Don’t Need Your Love’ tells us more than most would know about how much she achieved as a woman.

Of course, the show doesn’t end on the frustration that even after knowing all this from the fifteenth century, there have been a massive number of #MeToo revelations from the twenty-first century, leaving so much still to change. Instead, it gives us massive, magnificent performances from the group, sharing the contributions from the hugely talented band that have been on stage with them all night, and brings a deeper meaning to Makan’s expression of Parr’s label: ‘Survived’.

Mark Wickett

Photographer: James D. Morgan - Getty Images

SIX heads next to Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre from 17 June and QPAC’s Playhouse in 2023

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