Spoiler Alert! This review assumes you know the fate of Henry VIII’s wives. If you don’t know your ‘divorced, beheaded, died’ well enough, this may give away some details of the story….
My first taste of the Camden Fringe, Harry’s Girls kicks off with two performances at the RADA Studios, before continuing its performances Upstairs at the Gatehouse later in the month. Taking the characters of Henry VIII’s wives as immortalised by history, but transporting them to 1950s America, the all-female Spectra Theatre Company have placed these women – usually seen as victims – in the driving seat of their own stories.
The action is moved from the Tudor court to 1950s America, with the very real threat of nuclear war hanging over the party atmosphere of Vegas. The unseen figure of Harry begins the show as a big music star, graduating to “the prophet” as time passes, the central figure of a cult-esque community. While it’s a little tricky to follow this plot progression at some points, the setting suitably reflects the strict structure and constant underlying current of fear in a tyrannical court. Each of the wives are fully recognisable as versions of their historical selves, with the exception of Anne of Cleves, whose role is transformed from fourth wife to Anna, friend of the other women. It’s a wise decision, as it offers the possibility of an outsider to the group, which adds some necessary variety into the drama.
Indeed, Lucy Pickles as Anna stands out with an excellent performance, bringing comedy into many a scene and filling the stage with fresh energy. Spectra Theatre Company has assembled a strong cast, with other stand-out performances from Danielle Segal (as Annie/Lizzie) and Megan Lloyd-Jones as KP, the woman who stands loyally beside Harry throughout all his marriages and disasters.
Colleen Prendergast’s script is for the most part witty and engaging, although it does have a couple of shaky moments: the first supernatural elements – Janet’s reappearance as a ghost after her death in childbirth – are rather awkwardly rendered and diminish the poignancy of the character’s demise. However the final scene, which also draws on the supernatural, is much more powerful with a dollop of wit as well; it shows that there is a way to blend the realms of the living and the dead on stage effectively.
The main issue this production has is that it helps to have some knowledge of Henry VIII’s wives, as this enables you to understand each character’s place in the story. The script alone doesn’t give you enough, leaving my plus-one on the night pretty baffled about the relationships between the women and the unseen Harry. However, Spectra Theatre Company have done a great job with a pretty rough and ready Fringe space, blending components of history together and creating an intriguing ensemble of female characters. There is a little work to be done script-wise, but this is just the first run of the show, and there is plenty of scope for development into a more refined piece. However, in its current state it is still certainly worth a visit.