HENRY VIII and his six wives exert a lasting fascination – there are even current “figures” who seem to use him as a role model, and increasingly the viewpoint of the wives is gaining traction, notably in the smash hit musical SIX, which started life on the Edinburgh Fringe.
Taunton-born Devon resident Stephanie Easton made an earlier stab at the queens’ stories, and her play with poems and songs was recommended to Sherborne’s Amateur Players by an adjudicator from NODA. Director, playwright and actor Adrian Harding followed up the suggestion, and now the company is staging the play to open its 2024 season.
Its structure is, inevitably, static, but as each queen states her case, the writer has chosen a poem that encapsulates her thoughts, recited by an actor and accompanied by appropriately Tudor music. APS has hired in magnificent gowns for the show, staged in a panelled room with a throne (and in one case, a block).
Roger Chadbourne narrates the story, summarising the various characters and habits of the queens and what caused their successive downfalls, as the six actresses embody the women whose names and fates are familiar to all students of English history. Robert Brydges, Adrian Harding, Jessica Colson and Richard Jones read poems from the much-loved If by Rudyard Kipling, through works by John Clare, Robert Herrick, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Lord Byron, as well as a work by “the elephant in the room” himself, Henry VIII.
The evening starts with Tanya Ogden, making her APS debut as Catherine of Aragon. Local audiences are familiar with her compellingly intense performances, and here she also maintains a very convincing Spanish accent throughout this harrowing account of Henry’s longest, and possibly happiest, marriage.
Next comes Anne Boleyn, played by Sally Matthews, who enters with a song and describes her scheming route to the queen’s crown, and her fall from grace. Then Jane Seymour, the sad wife who died of puerperal fever, was brought poignantly to life by Anne-Marie Harvey.
Bev Taylor-Wade was a strongly determined Anne of Cleves, making way in divorce for Henry’s youngest wife, Kathryn Howard, played by Hazel Parrett, who perfectly captures the lusty and headstrong nature of a child sent to the block for fancying young men instead of the by-now-repulsive old (well, 51 year-old) king.
The last wife, Catherine Parr, escaped divorce and beheading only by outliving the king. Her story was told by Rosie Castle.
The Tin Chapel, or Studio Theatre as it is now known, was packed for this very cold opening night, and the audience came away informed and entertained by this accomplished production.