The stratospheric ascent of Marlow and Moss’s award-winning, continent-spanning musical shows no sign of burning out thanks to its stellar cast
Six has evolved into somewhat of a juggernaut since its humble beginnings at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017. Off the back of a UK tour, Six took up residence at the Arts Theatre before the ongoing COVID pandemic brought a screeching halt to the world’s theatre scene. Due to its small cast size and concert-style staging, however, Six was one of the first productions to re-open, which saw it move first into the Lyric Theatre and then into the Vaudeville Theatre, where it has been entertaining audiences since the end of September 2021. That’s not to mention the concurrently running UK & Ireland Tour, which is setting off to Korea in March, the Broadway production, the multiple North American tours, the Australian tour and the Cruise line productions.
For the uninitiated, Six reframes the dreary rhyme Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived that strikes fear into the heart of most British school children by presenting the six wives of Henry VIII as competing with each other by ways of a pop concert, in which each Queen in turn presents their story to the audience. Running at a zippy 80 minutes without an interval, Six has been praised for its feminist messaging, its captivating, energetic score and its enthusiastic choreography. Since the vast majority of the runtime of the show is dedicated to songs, Six has been notable for the space that it provides performers to bring their own unique interpretations to these roles, creating a highly varied experience for visiting audiences.
The latest crop of Queens started their reign at the Vaudeville Theatre on 18 October, which saw Rhianne-Louise McCaulsky, Baylie Carson and Koko Basigara take over as Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard respectively, with previous Jane Seymour/ Catherine Parr alternate Roxanne Couch now playing Parr on a permanent basis, and Claudia Kariuki and Dionne Ward-Anderson continuing as Jane Seymour and Anna of Cleves. Elsewhere, Danielle Rose, Rachel Rawlinson and Esme Rothero continue their roles as Alternate Anne Boleyn/Katherine Howard and Super Swings respectively, joined by Monique-Ashe Palmer as Alternate Catherine of Aragon/Anna of Cleves and Leah Vassell as Alternate Jane Seymour/Catherine Parr.
Kicking off proceedings is Rhianne-Louise McCaulsky with Catherine of Aragon’s “No Way”. This is a challenging song – not just because of Aragon’s unparalleled contempt towards Henry at this juncture, but also because narratively it sets the bar for the other Queens to rise to. Fortunately, McCaulsky attacks this song with an incredible verve and surging energy. Throughout the performance, she holds herself with a supreme elegance and poise and certainly presents herself as a fearsome, formidable Queen that suffers no nonsense.
Next up is Baylie Carson as Anne Boleyn. Historians have debated for centuries over Boleyn’s scheming. Was she naive and out of her depth? Was she a master manipulator who was outplayed at her own game? Regardless of one’s historical viewpoint, audiences doubtlessly have never seen Anne Boleyn like this. Carson’s portrayal is unbridled chaos. A tornado made human, wreaking havoc across the stage and having a whale of a time doing it. Carson bounds around the stage with a childish, puckish glee, lolloping as if only recently having learnt how to walk. They are a force of nature.
Carson’s hedonistic chaos is devilishly entertaining to watch, but their portrayal is also monstrously amusing. Ignoring the fact that saying anything with an Australian accent instantly makes something ten times funnier – and this is only amplified whilst singing – Carson’s comic timing is near-unparalleled and Boleyn’s brazen, self-centred obliviousness only serves to aid this. They are also a disarmingly good vocalist, letting fly some supremely high notes towards the end of “Don’t Lose Ur Head”, as well as drawing the short straw with the unreasonably high harmony line throughout the show.
It is worth noting – and I note it last, as I believe that there are a great deal notable things about Carson’s portrayal beyond this fact – but Carson’s casting marks the first time that an openly non-binary performer has been cast as a Queen in Six. It is heartening to see a musical have a clear commitment to inclusivity with their casting, and it was also refreshing to see how certain changes were made in the mark of sensitivity. I may be wrong: but I’m fairly sure that Boleyn’s choreography during “which Queen has the biggest…the fullest…the firmest…” section has been altered (if I am wrong about that then that’s embarrassing, but if not, then call me Miss Marple).
Queen number 3 comes in the form of Jane Seymour, played by the continuing Claudia Kariuki. Kariuki has had a year to tinker with their performance, and there is definitely an assured confidence in her portrayal. Seymour is a tricky part to carve out a niche into, as many audience members will have fond memories of Natalie Paris’ long stint in the role. However, Kariuki brings real light and shade to the part. She brings an anger and a gritty passion to Seymour’s devotion, her “Heart of Stone” belts cutting into the audience like a knife. Not only this, but she has some brilliantly, laugh-out-loud comic moments – not necessarily from what is written – but purely from the expressiveness of her face. Truly masterful.
Dionne Ward-Anderson also continues in her role as Anna of Cleves. Cleves is typically associated with being the “fun” Queen. After all, “Get Down” is probably the danciest of the collection, modelled after Rihanna’s musical catalogue. Overwhelmingly, it just appears as if Ward-Anderson is having fun. She skips around the stage with delicious exuberance, oozing charisma and charm and is riotously funny. The way that she plays and experiments with her voice around the traditional vocal line of “Get Down” is gorgeous, and she really does show off her incredible vocal chops in a song where most audience members, even those who have seen the show many times before, wouldn’t expect it.
Katherine Howard is a tricky part to get right. Though “All You Wanna Do” is a near-perfectly constructed musical theatre song in terms of its narrative journey, Katherine Howard is one of the less well-known Queens: often shoe-horned in towards the end of the unit, a mere footnote despite the wealth of information surrounding earlier queens like Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. This has led to the historical conception of Katherine Howard as being unintelligent and promiscuous, and Six certainly has fun toying with that viewpoint. Koko Basigara successfully manages to balance Howard’s naivety and innocence with a disarming intelligence and sensuality.
The playfulness she exudes at the beginning of “All You Wanna Do” is tremendously endearing and gives her somewhere to go dramatically as the song progresses. Not to mention her powerful vocal. Basigara is also quite rare in the way that she chooses to expend her vocal energy, making a clear contrast between Howard’s willingness at the beginning of the song compared to the end, and though she certainly belts a lot in the climax, lots of the enthusiastic acrobatics are at the beginning of the song before Howard begins to get tired of the sexual advances that men are constantly making upon her. Basigara has also found a brilliant, almost deadpan Gen Z delivery of some of Howard’s funniest lines which the audience really responds to.
Finally, there is Roxanne Couch as Catherine Parr, a role that she already was alternate for in the previous cast. Couch is a captivating on-stage presence. A commanding mover, her dance moves really embolden the musical numbers throughout, and her acting performance is consistent as well as being remarkably subtle. It’s only towards the end that the audience really alight upon the realisation that they haven’t actually heard terribly much from the surviving Queen throughout the show. Once Parr does take stage, however, Couch is absolutely sensational. Her vocal tone is rich and smooth, with a superb range and awesome power.
Six‘s status as a feminist rewriting of history has been well documented, but it is still remarkable how well Marlow and Moss’s show succeeds in giving a voice to these unheard figures within history without it feeling preachy or overbearing. The point comes across in a gentle way, whilst also having a deviously fun time doing it by playing around with the fun, camp elements that are inherent within musical theatre. It is also baffling how these Queens, who lived over 500 years ago, are fashioned into relatable women for a twenty-first century audience.
Overall, Six continues to be a brilliantly entertaining evening. With a fiercely talented cast and such well-written, uplifting material, its reign at the Vaudeville Theatre is assured for some time to come.
Six the Musical is currently playing at the Vaudeville Theatre, accepting bookings until October 2023. For further information, please visit the website here.