‘Anne Boleyn’s tiara was from Claire’s Accessories’ – how we made Six: The Musical

What if Henry VIII’s wives were a pop group? The makers of the smash hit recall how Catherine of Aragon was very much Beyoncé, Anne Boleyn had Lily Allen vibes – while Jane Seymour was a sort of Adele

Lucy Moss, co-writer

In 2017, Cambridge University’s musical theatre society invited applications for an original show that it could take to the Edinburgh fringe. Toby Marlow and I were third years at the university, and had talked about doing a musical together for ages, so he applied, saying he would write a show with pop music and lots of women at its centre. Representation of women on stage was in the cultural conversation – later that year #MeToo happened.

The fringe has so many professional productions, you need a hook for your student show. The “real housewives of Shakespeare” and a Wicked-type backstory for the witches in Macbeth were two of Toby’s ideas. But if you’re looking for a famous group of women who are out of copyright, the most obvious are the six wives of Henry VIII. “What if the wives were a pop group giving a concert?” asked Toby. I was like: “Sure! But that sounds like it could be so terrible. We’ll have to make sure it isn’t.” The format was inspired by Beyoncé’s Live at Roseland show.

I was studying history but couldn’t remember much about the Tudors, beyond Henry possibly writing Greensleeves about Anne Boleyn. Anyway I had my dissertation to write so didn’t have much time for reading. My main research was Lucy Worsley’s TV series. I love the way she gets dressed up, pretending to be a lady in waiting and looking over her shoulder at the camera. It’s so ridiculous!

We wrote half the show over four days in the Easter holiday; the rest we finished in our final term. We took a student production of Six to Edinburgh that summer. The costumes were very low budget – Anne Boleyn had a tiara from Claire’s Accessories. No one was paid, it was just for fun. Our venue in Grassmarket was a converted hotel conference centre. I set up the first couple of shows then went back to Cambridge to direct a Shakespeare play. I just didn’t think Six would be so important. But it quickly started selling out and it wasn’t just our friends buying tickets.

After the fringe we put it on in Cambridge. The producer Kenny Wax saw it and said he had a show at the Arts theatre in London that wasn’t playing on Mondays. Would we like to do a showcase with a professional company on those nights? We did that, recorded an album, toured the show, then went back to the Arts for an open-ended run.

I’d thought that after uni I’d move back in with my mum, send emails to theatre directors asking to shadow them and slowly try to work my way into the industry. I was fast-tracked by Six. People get in touch now and say they’d love to learn from me but I don’t know what I’m doing!

‘Adele with a bit of Demi Lovato’ … Six, with Natalie Paris as Jane Seymour, right.
‘Adele with a bit of Demi Lovato’ … Six, with Natalie Paris as Jane Seymour, right. Photograph: Pamela Raith

Six fans are incredibly creative and make fan art of me and Toby with the queens. Audiences started to come in homemade costumes. Our materials had been sourced from Shepherd’s Bush Market, but once fans found out where to get the Anne Boleyn material we had to go and buy all of it in order to make more costumes ourselves!

Natalie Paris, played Jane Seymour

At school you learn about the Tudors and the “divorced, beheaded, died” rhyme, but the focus is on Henry, not the wives. I went to the audition for the Arts theatre showcase knowing it was a retelling of history from the wives’ point of view. They said bring a pop song – I sang If I Ain’t Got You by Alicia Keys. The audition was a lot friendlier than they usually are. On the first day of rehearsals, Toby and Lucy sang the songs for us. The wives were witty, clever, well-rounded women and it was such a relatable script, so modern. I thought: “Wow, this is genius. If I came to see this show, I would want to be in it.”

Each queen took some inspiration from a different pop star. Catherine of Aragon was very much Beyoncé, Anne Boleyn had Lily Allen and Kate Nash vibes. Jane Seymour is sort of Adele with a bit of Demi Lovato. My solo, Heart of Stone, is a big song and was a bit daunting at first, but I just felt like it was written for me. Over almost four years singing it, I constantly found new things to discover.

We only had a couple of weeks to put everything together for the first show. It was a bit of a stress but I’ve never laughed so much in rehearsals. The workshop cast recorded the album, too. We had no idea it would end up with over 100m streams! If someone told me I’d have freaked out.

Most of how the show looked was very different from how it is now. My first costume was a jumpsuit from Zara with a corset and we all had heeled trainers on. Later, Gabriella Slade designed incredible bright and sparkly costumes.

When I heard I was doing a show with only women in it there was this fear about having six strong characters in a room. There’s a stereotype about that. But on Six everyone built each other up. When we first took the show on tour we only had one cover, Grace Mouat, for all six of us – she was our seventh member. I still have a huge bond with the girls. They’re like my sisters.


Interviews by Chris Wiegand

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