‘Remember us from your GCSEs?’
It’s Henry VIII’s six wives – and they’re back, bitch, to re-tell ‘her-story’ as a slick, sassy girl band. Think Euro-pop remixes of ‘Greensleeves’, Anne Boleyn spouting tweenage text-speak (‘everybody chill/it’s totes God’s will’), and K-Howard warbling #MeToo tales of gropey employers.
‘Hamilton’ looms large here, and although ‘Six’ has its own moments of clever-clever hip-hop rhymes, it’s a tough comparison: this musical started life as a student show (Cambridge, obvs). But its creators, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, have succeeded in crafting almost brutally efficient pastiche pop songs – here a ballad, there a ballsy, blinging R&B number – performed with snappy dance routines by a talented, diverse cast (and all-female band). Since inception the show seems to have been given a good lick of gloss, too; it stands up in the West End.
But beneath its super-shiny surface, ‘Six’ is totes vacuous. And so basic in its feminism that it’s hard to believe it’s written by, like, actual Millennials.
The whole thing is staged as a deeply unsisterly competition, each wife getting a song in which to prove they’re the biggest victim, the one who suffered the most at Henry’s hands. This is treated weirdly as comedy though, OTT shrieks and snarks escalating until they’re actually in a catfight, pulling each other’s hair.
Several of the wives are characterised as dim and ditzy; some also as sexually provocative and vain. But by adopting the contemporary pop concert milieu, there’s no kick-back or real critique of this. Because we do still judge women by their looks, and there are whole industries where women absolutely play to that, only now under a thin veneer of ‘empowerment’. It winds up a Taylor Swift, Katy Perry sort of girl-squad feminism: skin-deep, conveniently served in hotpants.
Or doublet and fishnet-hose, as the case may be here; Gabriella Slade’s spangly costumes made my teeth hurt, but they are a spot-on synthesis of stadium pop princess and Tudor court.
At the very end, the women finally twig that competition doesn’t serve them, that it’s unfair they’ve been defined by a man, and that we don’t know anything else about them… So why on earth don’t Marlow and Moss offer us an alternative instead of a show 90 per cent about their relationship with a man and competition with each other?
It must be said, the crowd absolutely adored ‘Six’. And when you’re not worrying about the plot/politics, there is much to enjoy. Moments that strayed from the pop concert formula hinted at a wittier, weirder road not travelled – the song ‘Haus of Holbein’, for instance, reimagined Renaissance portrait painting as a dating app, to a surreal mash-up of German oompah music and banging House.
Marlow and Moss also have lots of fun with speedy, smart, silly rhymes (‘I tried to elope but the Pope said nope’) and with throwing in irresistible twisted historical references – ‘Ok ladies let’s get in Reformation’ made me snigger like a right nerd.
I suspect ‘Six’ will be a big hit. But if this is the future of feminism, lop my head off now.