Hook me up to this glittery inferno of sass. As SIX rip-roared into Oxford’s Playhouse theatre to a sold out first night I had a sudden flashback; not only to snooze-inducing primary school white boards lined with collar-clad ladies of the Tudor age, but also to a time I was rehearsing a show above The Arts Theatre in Leicester Square in 2017. All I could hear from the studios was the most incredible concert-like atmosphere, so naturally I had assumed Jessie J was playing. On hearing those first few chords again, and in its full glory, I got chills. After its incredibly successful first outing at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s first-time collaboration had a sell-out run in London’s West End and caused tectonic ripples in the British Theatre Industry.
Daring to take on the standard format for a musical production and produce an enthralling 80-minute concert-crossed-theatre piece, Oxford’s audience didn’t know what hit them: timid at first but with encouragement, soon dancing in the stalls to the final number. So, to honour their ingenuity, I’m 'changing up the story' of this review. What is it that made this musical recipe such a tasty one? Here are some ideas:
1 – I don’t think I’ve heard better vocal performances in musical theatre. The nature of the show relies so heavily on the technical prowess of all the six leading ladies, I honestly think I’ve found my new Spice Girls. The whole group made effortless nods to icons like Celine Dion, Beyoncé, Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne. I couldn’t get enough of Lauren Drew’s Welsh burr as Catherine of Aragon as her vocal agility and control held so much command I basically wanted to be her. Catherine Parr was played with extraordinary gravitas and enviable skill by Elena Gyasi and the much-anticipated interpretation of Anne Boleyn, playfully brought to life by Maddison Bulleyment was such an achievement, she had everyone in stiches with her wry wit. Caitlin Tipping as the heart-felt Jane Seymour laid down some serious power ballad moves and Shekinah McFarlane’s Anne of Cleves brought some juicy Missy-Elliot-style goodness. The masterly Vicki Manser’s Katherine Howard had definite Britney vibes too as the story’s parallel to young, sexualised pop-stars, while the band musicians rocked, hard.
2 –I’m calling it – Marlow and Moss are the new (and home-grown) Rodgers and Hammerstein. The script’s razor-sharp self-awareness with the narrative-flipping ending, the index of both modern and historically accurate cultural references, the nods to theatre favourites… this was a remarkable piece for first-time writers and self-proclaimed aggressively enthusiastic dancers. The choreography also played a leading role, done by Olivier-Award-Nominated Carrie-Anne Ingrouille and notably directed by Jamie Armitage and Lucy Moss herself, becoming the youngest woman ever to direct a musical on Broadway! (Did I mention it’s hitting Broadway?)
3 – I genuinely feel like this show recontextualises these historical characters' stories. As a fan of historical fiction, I was transfixed by the detail and research the show had done into the many retellings of the tale and the nods to it in its music, costume, and lyrics. No longer are these women famous because of the man they shared a marital status with - Henry VIII is only remembered because of his SIX (very cool) wives. History – Take note. (Or should I say ‘Her-story’?)
Sounds pretty epic doesn’t it? Catch it at The Oxford Playhouse until September the 5th.