How to Win Against History is one of those plays at the Fringe that has the double-edged curse of “hype”. Last year, it played in the tiny Box at Assembly George Square – this year, it’s playing to hundreds. It was a diamond in the rough at last year’s Fringe, a runaway hit, but I never got to see it. Now, having caught up on the trend, I reckon the hype has been hemlock for the show.
That’s not to say that How To Win Against History isn’t good, because it is. With the book, music, and lyrics all authored by Seiriol Davies, the story follows Henry Cyril Paget, the fifth Marquis of Anglesey, a cross-dressing eccentric. His family, ashamed, burn away all trace of him after his early death – but How to Win endeavours to keep his story alive.
The music in particular stands out. It’s a quirky and modern music hall pastiche, funny and clever without ever becoming alienating. The performances by the adept cast of three, too, people the world of the play with ease.
But with this newfound expectation resting on it, the few flaws of How to Win feel very conspicuous. Now, the plot can’t afford to feel drawn out, or some of the songs a little bit directionless, or the conclusion murky and muddled. These things feel very at odds with the confidence of the show’s title and supposed message, causing the show to lack a clarity that it seriously needs.
It is, for the most part, hilarious and moving, and Alex Swift’s direction embraces the whirlwind, debonair plotline. If you can’t see the show, absolutely give it a listen to on Spotify – the album has been released, and it’s divine. And if you can see the show – great. Just avoid listening to the hype from last year, and take it at face value. You’ll be much better off.
How to Win Against History is playing at Assembly George Square as part of the Edinburgh Fringe until August 27.