One of the many charms of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is getting to watch superb theatre in the unlikeliest of venues. My week had already taken me from Methodist churches to pub basements, so why not the venue known as “Sweet Grassmarket”, which turned out to be the conference rooms of the rather posh Apex Grassmarket hotel?
Recommendation seemed to have spread by word of mouth, and there was quite a buzz around the first original musical toured by Cambridge University’s Musical Theatre Society. The slightly surreal premise of SiX – Henry VIII’s wives form a 6 piece girl band – had me, and the audience, racking our brains for any previous knowledge.
I imagine that for most of us, it boiled down to the saying we all learnt in primary school: “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived”. Even at degree level (as fellow historians might attest), there’s not much written about Henry’s wives beyond their infamous endings. SiX flipped all of that around with their hilarious opening number, “Divorced, Beheaded, Live!”
Drawing on familiar reality TV tropes, the wives announced their intention to battle out for the title of most suffering wife, who would subsequently become the leader of the band. This was all about the queens, Henry no longer the subject, but object of their mockery, vitriol (and occasional) sympathy. The musical not only debunked tired historical stereotypes with enthusiasm, but was the best hour of comedy I saw all Fringe.
Megan Gilbert as Catherine of Aragorn and Ash Weir as Anne Boleyn oozed sass as implacable archenemies, united by their common loathing of their ex-husband. But perhaps it was the other four wives – the ones often forgotten about – whose personalities were given a greater chance to shine. Generally remembered by posterity as “the one with the son”, Jane Seymour (played by Holly Musgrave) sang heartbreakingly of a missed life with her newborn baby.
Poor Anne of Cleves has the misfortune to be labelled as the “ugly one”; here Matilda Wickham played a strong, independent woman who enjoyed using her royal pension to the full. Annabel Marlow was a defiant Katherine Howard, unapologetic in her sexuality, while Catherine Parr (Shimali de Silva) recounted a tragic choice between love and duty.
Behind all the one-liners was a relevant message that was skilfully delivered without ever sounding preachy. Six women sang about replacing “history” with “herstory” – a struggle every gender historian knows well, and one every historian needs to engage in.
The show’s writers, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, deserve credit for sparkling, witty lyrics that wore contemporary references lightly on their sleeve. “Come on ladies, let’s get in Reformation”, sang Anne Boleyn – and surely she would have channelled Beyoncé way back in 1536?
Perhaps my one criticism would be a lack of staging, but the production team did well to overcome the unglamorous surroundings, with eye-catching costumes that captured the individuality of each wife.
The choreography was a tongue-in-cheek tribute to every Noughties girl band and performed with amazing energy for a 60-minute running time. To quote a favourite reality show phrase, they really did “give it their all”. Part revisionist history, part Spice Girls “Girl Power”, SiX had all the hallmarks of a Fringe classic.