It was a packed auditorium, and a very warm evening: the perfect excuse for spectators to grumble about shared body heat and the scent of one or two undeodourised armpits. But there was no grumpiness as we waited for the play to begin, only excitement, as though the audience all felt that we were about to watch something wonderful. As the opening lines “I am lonely/But I am rich” were sung by Seiriol Davies (our hero, Henry Cyril Paget), our high expectations were met.
Near the beginning of the show, we were promised “mainstream entertainment”, and the three performers consistently delivered just that. As the many standing ovations at the end of the evening proved, we had all been amused, entertained, and moved. In just over an hour, writer, composer and star Davies, alongside fellow performers Matthew Blake and Dylan Townley (piano and playing “the Band”), made us laugh more than probably any of us had in the last month combined. Not only this, but they subtly managed to emotionally invest us in the fate of the deceased Henry Paget, the fifth Marquess of Anglesey….no, I’d never heard of him before, either.
This is, in itself, testament to Davies’ creative genius. Plucking through the “charred remains of a true story”, the playwright found a narrative about a cross-dressing aristocrat who lost his family fortune (having wasted a lot of money on “amazing plays to which nobody came”, and “lilac-dyed poodles”), died alone in Monte Carlo at the age of 29, and whose family “in vengeance, burned every proof they could find that he existed, and carried on as though he never was.”
Many people may hear such a story and simply find it depressing. Some might call it a tragedy. Davies, however, saw the opportunity to make it a “fabulous tragedy”, and so created this hilarious musical.
There was just so much right with this production, it is hard to begin to describe it. The energy was perfect: at no point did anyone lapse or lag; they all kept dancing, singing, playing, miming, and pulling the right faces. Their joy was infectious and I could tell the three men on stage loved being in this show. The chemistry between the performers was truly fantastic, and I hope they realise every person in the room tonight wanted to buy each of them a drink for the chance of getting to become the fourth person in their fun squad.
But of course, the most necessary thing to praise is the comedy: it was just so very funny. They used a myriad of different types of humour, all sorts of jokes. From the witty wordplay of the lyrically dextrous songs, and the sudden cabaret number celebrating “boots, boots, boots and feathers”, to satirising a particularly disliked tabloid with the goblin-like Quentin to… well, there’s too much to put down in this review. All I can hope to do is give a hint of the feast of comedy they so generously served us.
There was also a lot of heart in this hilarity: despite the ridiculousness of Henry, and the fact he is – as he sings – “a narcissist” – we still want him to win. Having been told our hero’s story at the start of the play, we knew he would perish – and we could even laugh as he did so, as the show does not shy away from gallows humour – but we had also been promised some sort of happy ending too, and we desperately wished to see this come true.
The audience really cared about this beautiful eccentric, though we knew he was a terrible husband, a great squanderer and a rotten marquess. Despite all his faults, he had given us so much delight in 65 minutes that we did not want him to be destroyed.
The play does not – and will not – change the objective facts of the marquess’ life by bestowing Henry with a sudden miracle cure. But it does rewrite the legacy Paget’s family would have left him. Our hearts are warmed by Davies’ generous act: he helps the Marquess win against history after all.
We are happy to play our part in keeping the story of Henry alive, as we go out and plead our friends to find some way of watching this musical – whether by grabbing one of the few last tickets in London, or finding their way to Edinburgh this autumn.
That is, we will continue to be happy to do this, if the company in turn releases a cast recording, or at the very least a libretto, so we can continue musing over our Paget.
How to Win History is playing at Ovalhouse until Saturday 23 July. For more information visit the Ovalhouse theatre website.
Photo: Rah Petheridge