Blue Beard Babes

Fri 5th – Sat 13th August 2011


Jonathan Grande

at 11:49 on 14th Aug 2011



The past was, and occasionally still is, written almost exclusively by, for and about men – the word ‘his’-tory seemingly no coincidence. With their production of the devised work Blue Beard Babes, Playades attempt to redress the balance slightly by bringing a touch of ‘her’-story to the Edinburgh Fringe. Unfortunately, it is a piece that misfires in every direction.

The premise is not altogether uninteresting. Six actresses meet to start work on a new show in which they will be playing the six wives of Henry VIII. But the director is late, and so they are left to their own devices as they research, rehearse, and gossip their way through the next hour. And there any real interest ends.

From the start, the piece has a superficial gloss to it, which is never delved beneath. Immediately on discovering which wife they are to play, the actresses seem to take on their character, suddenly competing with each other in a jarring change of direction. And this superficiality does not disappear as the show progresses: trying to explore six stories in less than sixty minutes, the cast are never given the opportunity to develop characters, themes or emotions.

Very quickly, the piece also begins to feel unforgivingly predictable, as the unchanging scene structure emerges blindingly brightly: conversation between a couple of the actresses is usually followed by one of the two ‘wives’ delivering some lines from the play within the play, with each of these mini-sections culminating in a short movement piece (always accompanied by the same short motif from Greensleeves). Oh, and just to ensure the audience are never caught by surprise, each wife/actress is dealt with in this way in chronological order: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour…

Using the tired device of having a play-within-a-play, the piece unsuccessfully attempts to bring Henry VIII’s wives’ own personal stories into the twenty-first century. For a start, this seems completely unnecessary in the first place (at least to this historian). The stories of the six wives are fascinating, intriguing and shocking in their own right, and they have been brought to a vast popular audience in recent years. They don’t need to be brought forward five centuries in order to entertain and be sympathised with. More frustratingly, the manner in which Playades try to expose the parallels between the lives of Henry’s wives and of women today is uncomfortably forced. Most grating and unsubtle is the case of the actress playing Anne of Cleves, who ‘modernises’ the blind marriage between Henry and Anne by talking of her impending marriage to a man she has only seen over Skype.

Blue Beard Babes’ only saving grace is the creative and original use of playing cards throughout the movement pieces. Symbolising a whole variety of different props and costumes, from Catherine of Aragon’s lost babies to a collar and lead that ultimately fails to keep Catherine Howard faithful, they are frequently used to create striking and powerful imagery.

But alas, unlike a House of Cards, you need more than a pack of playing cards to build a play.


Juliet Roe

at 11:51 on 14th Aug 2011



When this play opened to a vocal rendition of ‘Greensleeves’ my heart sank. An onstage equivalent of the BBC’s ‘The Tudors’? Kill me now. The renditions of ‘Greensleeves’ continued, but for the most part the inanity of that TV show did not appear, and a lucid exploration of marriage and women’s responsibilities unfolded.

The levels of intelligence in the points put across by this piece were a little erratic; the premise was six women brought together by one man, the ever-absent director ‘Hal’, to put together a play about the six wives of Henry VIII. As the women debate their roles and rehearse, parallels between their characters and their own lives emerge, subverting the ‘back then was bad, now it’s good’ view of female history and replacing it with an ambiguous ‘back then was quite bad, now it’s different’. Lauren Karl’s character, who plays Anne of Cleves, is about to embark on a marriage with an Italian man she has never met in real life (only over Skype) in an effort to resolve both of their financial problems. Alice Frick’s character longs for the children that even a year long course of IVF cannot bring her, plays Catherine of Aragon. These parallels could be clumsy, but the structure of the piece immerses them in the banter and quarrels of a cast preparing for a show which softens the comparisons.

Inbetween the scripted scenes are transitional, stylised portrayals of the marriages of Henry VIII’s wives using a vast amount of playing cards to portray confetti, Henry’s beard and in Catherine of Aragon’s case, stillborn children. Despite the insistence on some rendition of ‘Greensleeves’ being used every time (there are surely other pieces of music from that time!!) these interludes allowed the actors to showcase very strong physical acting, balancing out not only the verbal-physical aspects of the show but also the personal-historical views of the Queens. The actresses getting to grips with their characters in the scripted scenes gave the transitions more poignancy through their juxtaposing a view of the Wives as both people and as historical figures.

It’s ways of approaching history like this that can make it moving, and the strength of the ensemble and the balance given by the transitions made this show very interesting. The final scene, in which Cindy-Jane Armbruster’s Penny/ Catherine Parr criticises their director Hal and his chronic (and oh so symbolic) absenteeism felt that little bit too ‘girl-power’, spelling out to the audience what had been made obvious by the intelligence of the rest of the play. This scene left an aftertaste of a ‘message’ far too strongly, it might have been better to end with another stylised scene. After all, didn’t some Tudor dude say that ‘action is eloquence’?


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