Review: The Six Wives of Henry VIII, King's Head Theatre

“But Henry…….Tu-dor you want to go out with?”

Living Spit, a company made up of Howard Coggins and Stu McLoughlin, have created a new production telling the classic historical saga of Henry VIII and his six wives. Told through music, endless multi-roling and manic comedy, these two men manage to portray over thirteen characters and go through about seventy years worth of content within an hour and fifteen minutes. 

Of course, with such a small window of time to recount decades worth of lengthy royal events, some corners had to be cut, and there is a lot of reliance of the audience having a solid sense of exposition about the Tudors. This, however, forms itself as a repeated comedic tool throughout the show, and gags about that audience “already knowing that” and a clever manipulation of dramatic irony all combine to create a comfortable, humorous relationship between the audience and the actors. This comfort, however, is restricted in moments of unnecessary crudity and mania, with moments of unexplained, extreme action which are not properly qualified, leaving the audience in a spin. Absurdity and random immaturity such as flash nudity, below the belt jokes and unwarranted chaos on stage leaves the audience in a whirlwind of confusion and discontent, whilst trying to keep up with the continuous high-speed action taking place without a pause to take a breath. 

The lack of costume and rigid style leaves the piece feeling rather premature in its production stages. The opening scene addresses the audience directly, and explains the story of how the two actors came together to form the company. It then continues and without warning jumps headfirst into the fictional story of King Henry’s reign, leaving room for confusion regarding the timeline and relationship the actors have to the audience in terms of being both performers, and conversationalist educators. This might work with a smoother transition, however the erratic high-speed form-jumping nature of the piece means that the whole show becomes impossible to keep up with. 

The other main criticism I have is regarding the portrayal of female characters by the male actor, Stu McLoughlin. Despite being clearly adept at multi-roling, accents, characterisation and physicality, McLoughlin’s performance of seven different female characters leaves a sour taste in my mouth due to the stereotypical, old-fashioned portrayal of the conventions of a woman. With the new era of Henry VIII’s wives being seen as powerful, courageous women with their own stories and voices, as in Toby Marlow 
Lucy Moss’ Six, this show’s prehistoric representation of these women places itself right back in the time of Shakespeare’s day, with male actors playing the part of the helpless, overtly ‘feminine’ woman, giving them no credibility and simply just serving as a figure of sexual gain. 

These major barriers to our investment in the piece, despite being constant and recurring, manage to be laughable (for the right and wrong reasons – don’t ask me how they pull that off), and ultimately remind us how lucky we are to have moved on from a time where men play all the parts on stage, even when it is to the detriment of the performance.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII is playing at the King’s Head Theatre until 7 March. For more information and tickets, visit the King’s Head Theatre website.