Toby Marlow & Lucy Moss,
Kenny Wax, Global Musicals Ltd, George Stiles
The Lowry, Salford August 2-14 (then Blackpool Opera House August 30-September 3; York Grand Opera House October 11-16; Bradford Alhambra November 1-5; Liverpool Playhouse December 6-January 8, 2023)
1hr 40mins (no interval, and note unusual start times)
"Listen up: let me tell you a story..."
Way back in the last century, long before the defining pop-culture feminist moment when England won the Euros, we had girl power.
Six interrogates that idea, taking it right back to the Reformation, then tells it like it (kinda) is today, with fizzy pop riffs and killer lyrics – but also with something more substantial hidden at its heart.
The premise here is that there might be something more to say about the six women you remember "from your GCSEs" (says Catherine of Aragon), or from the opening rhyme: "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived".
The medium is girl-band pop. The message is undiluted feminism. Let's not mention the H word – he doesn't feature in person, and no-one seems to have much time for him in their testimony. And why would you? As the Boleyn girl says, "I had a daughter and he literally chopped my head off". So there, he's almost relegated to the footnotes. That's the "histo-remix" for you.
As is well documented, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss were undergraduates when they wrote this. It has a Gen Z feel; a kind of Horrible Histories dramaturgy that might serve to inform, educate and entertain (certainly not in that order).
It's easy to be dismissive of the teen-friendly storytelling and the sugary pop. But there's a great lesson here, with a dramatic shape and drive that move forward constantly, and the kind of action that never leaves you bored or confused. One hundred minutes, no interval: it's ambitious but it pays off. You couldn't stop these Queens, and no-one wants to. It's a stadium-pop pantomine, and we're all included.
And here's the impressive thing: under the contemporary references to social media, textspeak and acid house (in synergetic combination with Greensleeves of course) is a large body of critical knowledge, for which we can surely credit Moss, the revisionist, feminist historian.
You get a flavour of the attributes of each woman, condensed with immaculate confidence into a sassy lyric. Buried under the Beyonce is a critique of the perspectives of 19th-Century historians who imposed their own values on scant evidence about each wife, and a reminder that there is always another side, or even another story. And that women can tell their own stories in whichever way they please (did anyone see the football?).
Yes it's frothy on top. If you want to know the depths running underneath, buy the programme, where Marlow and Moss casually and readably give us their feminist manifesto on musical theatre and BBC Historian Lucy Worsley gives us an unapologetic, historical revision of the Queens. "Sorry, not sorry" she concludes. Boom.
Back to the show: performances, set and costumes stun. The six we saw – Chloe Hart, Jennifer Caldwell, Casey Al-Shaqsy, Jesssica Niles, Leesa Tulley and Alana M Robinson – were all powerful vocalists, energetic dancers and comedic actors. The addition of the "ladies in waiting" (or band) onstage, called out by name, reinforced the girl-power ethos. Tony award winning costume design makes this show visually iconic. Sexy yet substantial, doublets and ruffles compete and combine with fishnet tights, kinky boots and spangly knickers in breathtaking synergy, with each character's own colour and style accounted for. Contemporary choreography and music are Tudor-infused, and the actors, who remain on stage throughout, offer relentless energy and drive. The songs are catchy, the rhymes informed, intricate and at times hilarious.
Being that she's perhaps the ideal obsessive demographic, I asked my own pre-teen Queen (who is 11), how many stars out of five the show deserved? For her there's only one answer: six.
More info and tickets here