British history is peppered with truly remarkable people. Kings, queens, writers, actors, scientists, athletes and military generals pepper school history books and cultural subconscious. Then there are the people like Henry Paget, fifth Marquis of Anglesey, who are largely forgotten, tucked away in the centuries-old folds of this country’s past. During his brief Victorian life, he became rather infamous for cross-dressing, blowing his family fortune, and turning the chapel of his estate into a 150-seat theatre where he played the leads in his own productions with which he later toured Britain and Europe.
Seiriol Davies’ How to Win Against History chronicles (and fictionalises parts) of Henry’s radical life, focusing on his theatre work and cross dressing, as a fabulous, form-bending cabaret/musical. This little show has a huge heart and needs further script development to smooth out the lumpy narrative, but sequins and silliness, destroying the fourth wall, clowning and contemporary political commentary makes for a powerfully subversive and hilarious production.
The lengthy introduction provides necessary exposition, but as it gives way to a song that focuses on the Marquis’ time at Eton, it becomes too long. The interesting plot points come once the character is of age, and these deserve more attention than they are given. The beginning also sets up the style that’s maintained throughout, of musical theatre songs punctuating scenes that are heavy on the sort of narration and banter that is found in cabaret and drag acts. It’s a wonderful act of genre smashing. Musical theatre, cabaret, vaudeville and pantomime make an engaging, energizing combination that fosters audience participation and celebration. If this is where popular theatre is heading, then bring it on – Seiriol Davies’ script is at the forefront of musical theatre innovation.
Once young Henry finishes school, action starts to pick up. After a mutually beneficial marriage to his cousin (that was reportedly never consummated) and teaming up with a actor Alexander Keith (Matthew Blake), he casts himself in several plays. When no one comes, they take the shows on the road, making hilarious changes as the audience becomes less enamored of his work. More could be made out of his marriage and his increasingly weird theatre productions; they are rushed and little sense of a timescale is provided. Between his awakening as a student to a touring theatre maker, there’s a feeling that a lot of plot is missing. He is suddenly a broken man in Monte Carlo being interviewed by Daily Mail journalist Quentin (a brilliant in-joke!) and whilst this is deliciously funny, there is yet another leap in time and place. More scenes could easily be written to fill in these gaps without disrupting the established style. Even though the cabaret influence comes though in the short sketch-like scenes, as a musical it feels underwritten.
Writer Seiriol Davies plays Henry, the fabulously flamboyant lover of sequined dresses and the theatre. His journey from naïve boy to the ill and impoverished 20-something is lovely and genuine, with songs that in turn capture his enthusiasm and anguish. Energy abounds from the other two performers, making the show feel a lot bigger than it actually is.
Though this new musical needs further development to give it the scale and narrative punch that matches the style, it is fantastically good fun. The political content and deconstructing of style and structure are fly in the face of historical erasure of controversial figures and dramatic conventions. But it evoked engagement and contribution from a willing audience that was eating out of the performers’ hands within the first few minutes and this in and of itself is a huge indicator of excellent work. How to Win Against History could easily have the scale of a West End show, and it deserves the attention that would garner it.
How to Win Against History runs through 28 August in London and Edinburgh.
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