Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Theatre review: How to Win Against History

With drag all over the West End, the Young Vic's Maria gets in on the act, although the cross-dressing in How to Win Against History is a bit of a red herring, or at least the tip of the iceberg. Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th Marquis of Anglesey, was ridiculously wealthy even for an Edwardian aristocrat, but managed to end up dying destitute at the age of 29 thanks to his extravagant lifestyle, which included elaborate drag, rebuilding his family chapel into a personal theatre, and travelling the country putting on shows nobody wanted to see. His family were so ashamed of him they burnt all pictures of him they could find after his death, and attempted to wipe him out of history altogether. Clearly they didn't quite succeed, but very little information about this notable eccentric has survived, so Seiriol Davies' cabaret version of his life story is by necessity largely guesswork.

Davies plays Paget, with musical director Dylan Townley on keyboards and Matthew Blake playing the Marquis' actor sidekick Alexander Keith, as well as any other roles that come up.

This is a sweet and amusing, if not quite as riotously funny as it seems to be aiming for, evening of comedy and song. Davies had a long way to go to get me on-side after his part in one of the worst shows I've ever seen, but his wide-eyed grotesque of Paget largely succeeds. In Alex Swift's production, he and Blake reenact Paget and Keith's tour around the country, endlessly rejigging their show in an attempt to find something crowdpleasing, but only ever succeeding in making it more alienating and bizarre.

I guess they didn't manage to destroy quite every photo of him.

Davies has created his version of Paget as a rather gormless and sweet character, and an offhand reference to him apparently badly mistreating his wife suggests he's chosen not to dig too deeply into what the reality might have been like. There's also a reminder that if you do choose to drop a few topical gags into your script you have to keep rewriting - Paget fagging at Eton for a boy called Cameron who tells him "we're all in this together" betrays the fact that the show has been around for a couple of years. On the other hand Blake is show-stealingly good, Davies' version of the Eton song was my favourite gag of the show ("Eton, Eton, pull up a peasant to rest your feet on,") and Ian thought some of the songs were catchier than you hear in most musicals. An enjoyable show but one that doesn't feel like it has much below the surface.

How to Win Against History by Seiriol Davies is booking until the 30th of December at the Young Vic's Maria.

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Kristina Banholzer.

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