Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived — this is a mantra that few English school students could have avoided learning at some point. They might have even enjoyed finding out about Henry VIII and the frisson of sex and danger that surrounded him; so different to the monarch they know, in her sensible shoes and frumpy hats.
But it can be a bit hard keeping those Cs and Ks straight, so the writers of Divorced Beheaded Died, which premiered last night at the Jermyn Street Theatre, have kept it simple, only putting the first three on stage. Catherine of Aragon (Melanie Dagg), Anne Boleyn (Stephanie Fastre), and Jane Seymour (Frederica Dunstan) are in some sort of heavenly waiting room; you might call it Limbo, but we never get to that level of theological sophistication.
They are the caricatures you remember from high school history: Catherine’s the solemn, humorless one with a strong foreign (if rather indeterminate) accent; Anne’s all sex and temper; Jane’s all simper and stupidity. They think it is 1536, but suddenly Mary Boleyn — Anne’s sister — joins them in this curious room, and they learn it is 1543.
There’s news to catch up on. So for about an hour there’s a potted history lesson, with multiple flashbacks to the earlier years of Henry’s reign. It is more or less a comedy, if of the rather obvious kind, with many of the jokes coming from the use of contemporary slang and putdowns by women in Tudor dress. In such a production “What century are you living in?” is a dead cert for a laugh, but not exactly an original one.
And the drama, such as it is, comes from what I can only feel the authors would like to call “catfights.” Character stereotypes aren’t the only ones on show here; there are also some awful gender stereotypes that belong not to the Tudors but to the worst decades of the 20th century.
Alice Henley as Mary is the strongest stage presence. She’s helped by the fact that her character is by far the most sympathetic, but nevertheless she manages to endow what is still largely a caricature — her appointed role is of the grounded, sensible one — with some real sense of humanity.
The history and research behind the show are solid. I happen to be working on a book covering the same period and the details of the history can’t be faulted and are in line with all of the latest research.
The starting premise is too an interesting one, but from there it is all downhill. The second half loses even the consolation of bad jokes, and descends into ill-conceived philosophizing. (And the staging with blackboard and chalk — with its heavy scent of the schoolroom — is, I hope, not the best idea the director has ever had.)
All in all, it is a very juvenile production; it might well appeal to 14-year-olds. The program says that after its run at the Jermyn, the production company Sweet FA is taking the production on tour. Is this perhaps a school tour? I can’t help wondering.
But will such audiences really get the joke in: “It is about as interesting as a five-course dinner at Wolsey’s House?” (One of the better lines in the show, for those who “get it.”)
The production continues until April 1. The theatre; booking – 020 7287 2875.