The Arts Theatre
15th January 2018
Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss are a songwriting team made in heaven, and in this show they make one of the strongest debuts in musical theatre that we have seen in a very long time indeed. They have a knack for turning out powerful, catchy, attractive pop songs that also have a strongly dramatic impetus behind them. Their chosen format here is the ‘concept musical', and it is a wise choice to showcase their particular skills: the six wives of Henry VIII are ‘in concert', giving us their ‘herstory': the truth behind the well-known facade of agreed facts that comprise their place in posterity. With a cast of just six women playing the eponymous spouses, over the 80-minute running time, we get a sequence of revelations about their hidden selves, dressed in the form of a rock gig or variety spectacular. It's already played hugely successfully at Cambridge, and then on the Edinburgh Fringe. Now, their show makes its way into the Off-West End of this centrally located, intimate theatre, playing a few Monday night dates, squeezed onto the set of the resident presentation.
The slightly improvisational staging should not fool you into thinking there is anything less than fully finished about this magnificent work. Word of mouth has been very strong and snapped up all available tickets, so extra performances have had to be shoe-horned into the 10pm slot. Only a very few of these still remain, but I have a feeling it won't be too long before we see a more permanently sited production of this entertainment. Producer Kenny Wax, teaming up with George Stiles (who tipped him off about this show in the first place) and Perfect Pitch founders Andy and Wendy Barnes, have seized the chance to develop the commercial potential of this hot property – Stiles also handles the musical supervision and Tom Curran the top notch orchestrations (with pretty good sound design by Andy Graham), and Joe Beighton leads the way with the musical direction of the onstage brass and rhythm section band. With West End regular Lotte Wakeham directing, Cressida Carre choreographing with gusto the slick dance routines, Roberto Surace dressing the ladies in rock chick fashions, and Rebecca Fry being as inventive as she can with a very, very limited lighting rig, the show is looking good.
But it is the performances that people come for. This line up is cracking, and makes you feel you're watching a great concert, or attitude-laden TV variety special (especially with the tenuous ‘competition' story-line loosely stitching the numbers together). Renee Lamb kicks off as a feisty Catherine of Aragon, with Christina Modestou as a boldly contrasted Anne Boleyn; then there is the simpering presence of Natalie Paris' Jane Seymour – who ends up winning all hearts in the first out and out ballad of the evening, before we get the sass of Genesis Lynea's Anne of Cleves; next up are Aimie Atkinson's streetwise Katherine Howard, and finally Izuka Hoyle's remarkably accomplished Catherine Parr. Each of these ‘divas' has her moment – or moments – of glory, and each one can also be an ace team-player, blending in with some richly harmonised ensemble passages.
Yes, it is also true that, just as Richard Rodgers himself discovered years ago, when he had a go at the saga of Henry VIII, the show cannot quite shake off the relentlessly episodic nature of its ‘plot'. Never mind. The songs are great and those are what we concentrate on. The framing device doesn't over-stay its welcome, although the curtain call reprises did seem to go on for just a little bit too long. Small quibbles when the songs this team are putting over are amongst the best you will hear in town right now. And when you think that they are the work of a couple of kids just out of uni, well… it's a bracing, thrilling, exciting event to hear them, and you come out of the theatre longing to grab a cast album at the merchandise desk – but that's yet to come! If you can get a ticket for this run, grab one now. You'll be back.