It is common knowledge that history is written by the winners. In the case of Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th Marquis of Anglesey, the winners were his surviving relatives. When he died penniless at the age of 29 his family tried their hardest to obliterate all account of his short life; pictures were destroyed and the records scrubbed clean.
This is a hilarious play with a noble cause, championing one of history’s many victims.
In How to Win Against History, Seiriol Davies, writer and star, puts the spotlight back on Henry Cyril Paget, in a show that chronicles the life of a man the history books expunged. Results are mixed, but this is a beautiful premise. Paget was a fascinating man. He infamously squandered vast sums of inherited wealth and was known for performing his sinuous snake-like dances, and for his ‘butterfly dance’ pastimes which, along with his cross-dressing, did not sit well with his family.
Paget’s character is taken on by Davies, who shows a true affection for the man. Davis’wide-eyed expressions and comic-timing are essential to the production’s success. Making up the supporting cast is Matthew Blake; he plays an array of characters that, even without costume changes, are clearly discernible. Blake’s ability to play both male and female parts with ease was fantastic to watch. The ‘band’is played skillfully by Dylan Townley and his character holds the audience brilliantly from the opening moments of the play and he proves hilarious throughout.
This performance began with an incredibly successful run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2016, returning again this year to many accolades. There are some nods throughout the performance to the festival which should perhaps be altered for their new London crowd. The arduous task of handing out flyers is not quite the same outside of the festival, so anyone who has not visited Edinburgh’s Royal Mile mid-afternoon during the festival cannot truly appreciate those jokes. The play could have been better adapted to its new stage with fewer references to Edinburgh and a bolder use of the larger space. While the cast are incredible in the comic scenes, exploration of some of the darker details of Paget’s life felt lacking. While the cast depicted the characters well, given the lack of source material for Paget’s married life there seemed to be little depth to some of the interactions between Paget and his wife, Lillian. Some of the more somber (and perhaps abusive) aspects of their marriage felt glossed over, the comedic elements of the play were too strong to fully appreciate and to feel these serious moments. Similarly, as Paget is portrayed as such a ridiculous character throughout, at times his moments of suffering feel superficial. That said, at other times his plight is striking and moving and all too relatable.
As a comic musical this play is truly joyous. The songs are catchy, pithy and Monty Pythonesque in nature. In particular, their numbers about keeping the performance mainstream, and the inventive piece montaging Henry’s adventures touring his play had me crying with laughter - the inventive use of audience prompts was just amazing. The jokes and interactions between the three actors are fantastic, the audience was howling throughout. This is a hilarious play with a noble cause, championing one of history’s many victims.