The soft-spoken, sequinned, “frilly, frouffy” star of our show, Henry Cyril Paget, is a man done a disservice by history in that he was written out of it. The fifth Marquis of Anglesey is played as a dramatic, wide-eyed narcissist most enjoyably by Seiriol Davies. Davies’ own eccentricity suits this role, (it’s almost as though he wrote it…) and he is supported wonderfully by Matthew Blake and musical performer Dylan Townley.
Our marquis is a cross-dressing and theatre-loving extravaganza. He was burned from history by his, quite understandably, scandalised family. They were horrified at his carelessness with money, his love of theatre and the characteristic theatrics that complimented his passion, his disregard for religion, and perhaps mostly, they were scandalised by his non-conformity.
Alex Swift’s sharp direction seems to point us pretty heavily in this direction. The parallels between past ignorance and present intolerance are clear. The actors don’t try and lead you to consider provocative questions about acceptance or gender, whilst trying desperately to make it seem like the outcome was the audience’s idea all along. They ask you without hesitation; in fact, they ask over and over again with the pleasing repetition only a song can provide, “what does the audience want?”
A large portion of the musical is spent dwelling on this, the ever-elusive concept of what an audience wants. The wry and slightly acerbic answer they come to is the shimmering mirage of the mainstream. So that’s what the actors self-consciously provide; they keep the songs snappy, the jokes current and perfectly toe the line of just edgy enough. All the while they’re telling the unequivocally archaic story of a long dead marquis and his singular existence.
The play is full of easily quotable quips and mementos that stay lodged in your brain for hours, perhaps both somehow the saddest and most triumphant of lyrics is the one that starts and ends the play, “I was lonely, but I was fierce”. Well it’s hard to argue with a statement like that. We’re not always told the marquis is a good man; we’re not convinced that he’s a particularly kind one either. His utter single-mindedness and obsession with overly ornate beauty make him a poor leader and a carelessly cruel husband. Yet, he seems lonely, as so do the people around him. Despite this, he is (and this is also the reason we cannot help but warm to him) excited, passionate and utterly unique.
It’s safe to say Davies has the role down. Blake as his devoted companion, Alexander Keith (that’s Mr Alexander Keith to you), is also simply a joy to watch. He’s loquacious, witty, and so verbally dexterous that the audience is always both in a state of delight, and at risk of falling behind.
It’s a short play at around 80 minutes. It does come with a couple of unnecessary elements, thrown in seemingly just because they’re true and too ridiculous to miss out, even if they do nothing to serve the story. Altogether though, How to Win Against History is a triumph, the music is clever and catchy, the actors capricious and charming and the show destined for its own place in history.
How to Win Against History is playing at the Young Vic until December 30 2017
Photo: Kristina Banholzer