How to Win Against History

Theatre | How to Win Against History

Jemma Beggs reviews How to Win Against History by Seiriol Davies, a musical about Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th Marquis of Anglesey in order to unmask the illusion created by his family.  

A flamboyant and extravagant cross-dresser, Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th Marquis of Anglesey, blazed across the late 1800s in a riot of colour and controversy, before burning out at just age 29. Upon his death, his family destroyed almost all record of him, and his eccentric lifestyle, in favour of maintaining the illusion of “normality”. Seiriol Davies’ musical, How to Win Against History, seeks to redress the imbalance and injustice of such an omission from the history books by celebrating Henry’s life and individuality in truly ostentatious style, whilst not being afraid to acknowledge his flaws as a hopeless narcissist and reckless spendthrift.

When the essence of the show is to commemorate a little-known historical figure, whose existence has been all but erased, something significant is required to make up for the potential lack of storyline. Cue seventy minutes of outrageously camped-up musical entertainment, set against a relatively low-key backdrop of fairy lights and glitter in comparison to the larger than life characters atop it.

Audience interaction can be a difficult commodity to evoke, yet with their unbridled exuberance and the help of some vintage style cue cards, the trio of actors have no trouble eliciting gasps, fictitious faints, a variety of applause styles and even a couple of lines of a rousing German song. This is largely down to the infectious enthusiasm of a cast unafraid to be outlandish and a show unafraid to poke fun at itself.

In true spirit of the Marquis himself, How to Win Against History is unconstrained by the traditional conventions of a musical. Aside from Seiriol Davies as Henry, there are no defined characters. Instead, the other two actors weave in and out of the narrative, with no overt characterisation necessary. A brilliantly deadpan Dylan Townley opens the show by entering the stage without ceremony, standing in front of a keyboard, leisurely eyeballing the audience until nervous titters develop into warm chuckles, as the audience begin to realise they may be in for something rather unconventional. A suspicion confirmed when a conservatively dressed Matthew Blake bursts into song, with a delightfully over the top campness, rivalled only by the sequinned clad Seiriol Davies as Henry.

In keeping with its somewhat unorthodox structure, the production does seek to educate in a traditional sense; the few known aspects of Henry’s life are adroitly portrayed amidst a myriad of weighty, even tragic themes, antithetically conveyed in a manner of boundless gaiety and jocularity.

Yet despite its carefree appearance, How to Win Against History is in no way a case of style over substance. Whilst some may be fooled by the surface-level frivolity, beneath lies a tightly woven web of verbal witticism, razor sharp and downright hilarious at times…if you manage to keep up.

Delivered at a frenetic pace, it is challenging to catch every word, despite being at close quarters to the action in Sherman Theatre’s compact studio. Whilst the actors’ skill at maintaining such a speed of dialogue is impressive, there is a danger of the audience becoming immune to its impact, and a few missed words can easily result in a loss of momentum at such a fast tempo.

Potentially polarising, How to Win Against History’s flamboyancy and absurdity will most likely either induce eye rolling or non-stop laughter. It’s outlandish, it’s unique and it’s no doubt a commemoration Henry Cyril Paget, ‘The Dancing Marquis’, would have adored.