Wit, pathos, and sardonism don’t come more glamorous than blindingly smart and side-splittingly original How To Win Against History.
Henry Paget, the 5th Marquis of Anglesey, was almost completely erased from history. His life of “theatrical” (in several senses of the word) extravagance turned him from one of the world’s richest men into a pauper who was derided by high society for his love of putting on and performing in women’s clothing. But despite very little evidence surviving of him, most of it literally burnt by his surviving family, Seiriol Davies and his company creates How To Win Against History: a brand new musical comedy exploring what we do know about the life of the flamboyant Marquis.
British history is full of characters: eccentricity being something that is defiantly British. But we tend to forget that in a period renowned for oddball philanthropists, there was still a lot of shame and disgust if any of these character fall outside the paradigms of Victorian decency and morality. Henry Paget, the 5th Marquis of Anglesey, is considered literally one of the queer ones, and apart from a handful of surviving photos and accounts, his family seemed to have done a somewhat decent job of almost erasing him from history. From what people do know of Paget, it’s no surprise that fellow queer Welshie, Seiriol Davies, chose him as the fascinating subject for a comic biographical musical, trying to ensure that Paget isn’t as forgotten as his kin would have wanted.
But what is it Davies tries to say with How To Win Against History, and how does he go about consolidating a tragic character with a fabulous lifestyle against the injustice of historical homophobia? Well, by pretty much satirically scatter-bombing everything it comes into contact with, as well as celebrating Paget as a person, making this so much more than a didactic lament. Caught in Davies’ cynical cross-hairs is pretty much anything and everything, from the ridiculousness of actors’ egos and neuroses, to the insanity of marriages of convenience, along with various modern political and cultural pops along the way: even Quentin Letts doesn’t manage to squirm free of Davies’ cheek. How To Win Against History is a brilliantly wry, intelligent, and ironic tour de force that’s fizzing with comic imagination, verve, and dizzying unhinged character. There’s plenty of audience participation and knowing interactions that make this feel more like a hilarious decadent party than a piece of musical theatre.
Supremely funny, there are laugh out loud skits left right and centre, sending up everything from musical and theatrical tropes to some spot on character comedy. But what is really surprising is that there is still plenty of pathos and quite tragic moments. Paget is a character that, despite his exuberance, was misunderstood and struggled to express himself emotionally and artistically. Paget is a tragic character, and Davies, for all the fun and frolics of How To Win Against History, ensures that we don’t miss out on this side of his story. Therefore, there are several times in How To Win Against History that really stoke quite a heartbreaking emotional response, keeping the show human and reflective among its crazed comedy and ludicrous lambastes.
There may be some bits of artistic lisence on the life of Paget here, which is something that is expected due to dramaturlogical necessity, and also because of the fact that there’s little to go on when it comes to Paget’s life. But from what I could research myself, How To Win Against History is surprisingly accurate and does a great job of keeping the show as true to who Paget was as a person as possible. If he were alive, Paget’s only possible grumble would be that he isn’t in it!
Music & Lyrics
Davies’ songs for How To Win Against History really do round off the perfect execution of a brilliant idea. Though they’re pretty much all pastiches of various genres, namely musical theatre and classical opera, they never feel shallow because they really add an intoxicating aural verb, embodying the same sense of sharp satire and knowing as the concept and the book. Some of them are even quite catchy: I still find myself singing “Keith’s Quest” to myself at work at random points in the day.
As for the lyrics, they’re intricate, incredibly witty, and just as scathing and high-minded as the rest of the show, having you laughing pretty much non-stop. Many of the lyrical punch lines also come so fantastically out of the left field that you just can’t help but guffaw as well as applaud the comic innovation. Essentially, the entire project of concept, book, and songs, are concordantly matched together.
Direction & Production
Paget was a man all about extravagant costumes, so if How To Win Against History needs to get anything right, it’s those, and it absolutely does. Designer Verity Quinn’s costumes are sumptuous, especially for Paget’s blue sequined dress. The marvelous headpiece that goes with it not only looks divine, but is a detailed reproduction of that in one of the few surviving photographs of Paget (pictured). Even the costumes for the rest of the cast have a sharp and slick Victorian look to them and are by no means second rate to the centrepiece that is Paget. Furthermore, the fairy-lit velvet curtain backdrop and a few props are enough to give the space a warm and busy music hall feel, leaving the cast to conjure up the rest of Paget’s story with ease. Dan Saggar’s lighting also adds a technicolor of vibrant washes that add to the off-kilter mayhem of How To Win Against History, making it look as sumptuous as it is surreal.
Alex Swift’s direction really revels in the show’s energy, pushing the comic pacing that comes naturally from the performers and the gleeful feedback from the audience. But despite the onstage mania there is a definite focus. How To Win Against History is a show that could very easily career off the rails into messy madness if it’s not careful. But Swift is there to ensure it stays firmly on track but without losing any sense of the joyful spontaneity that is completely captivating.
The only problem to be sniffed at was the volume balance at times. With both spoken and sung patter thick with quick quips, sometimes they do get lost a little in the overall din, which is a crying shame as these really are the keystones of How To Win Against History’s brilliance. Then again, I was sat at the very back for the preview in quite a modest venue, and it’s likely to not be so much of a problem in a smaller theatre space.
Davies performance as Paget is sublime. There’s a constant vacant and unsure quirkiness that defines Paget in Davies’ portrayal that is used for both comic and tragic effect, a very clever bit of performance that touches on both the blissfully craziness and touchingly sad elements of How To Win Against History. But it’s Davies’ own exuberance and diva effervescent that makes him astonishing to watch. His energy and sense of unfettered hedonism really bounds around the audience, whilst he conducts the pandemonium around him with glittering sass and hospitality, as well as pushing out some superb moments of perfect comic timing.
Matthew Blake as Mr Alexander Keith is the perfect counterpart for Davies. They both work with each other’s comic strengths and audience-rousing abilities to become a formidable double act. Even though Blake’s characters are not always at the centre of the show, you can’t really imagine How To Win Against History without him or anyone else to complement Davies.
Even Dylan Townley as The Band is essential to the performance, playing the keyboard and responding expertly to Black and Davies, thus being an integral part of the show as Blake and Davies. Despite mostly consigned to tickling the ivories, Townley still has a marvelous comic presence that, when you notice it, is just as fabulous as the rest of the company, and is crucial to feeding into How To Win Against History’s energy and success.
A show to go down in the annals, How To Win Against History is a fringe defining event full of sass, silliness, and fierce wit: a sheer queer coup de theatre.
How To Win Against History plays at the Assembly George Square Theatre, Edinburgh, EH8 9LH, between 3 – 28 August, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Tickets are £10. To book, visit tickets.edfringe.com.
How To Win Against History was reviewed during its run at the Ovalhouse, London, SE11 5SW, 21 – 23 July 2016.