How to Win Against History review: Glittery musical cabaret full of energy and irony
Dublin Theatre Festival: A celebration of theatrical conventions that reclaims the hidden history of a cross-dressing aristocrat
How to Win Against History: Historical research, speculation and fantasy. Photograph: Damien Frost
HOW TO WIN AGAINST HISTORY
Civic Theatre, Tallaght
This is mainstream entertainment, the trio in Seiriol Davies’ musical cabaret assures us, as they set about reclaiming a life that was once considered so far outside the norms that it was “lived in vain”. Written out of history by his family after his death in 1905, Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th Marquis of Anglesey, is given his moment under the footlights here in spangled gown, winged helmet and eyeliner.
A love of cross-dressing, extravagant stage performance and splashing his vast inheritance on jewels led to Henry’s bankruptcy, followed by death in Monte Carlo at the age of 29. Afterwards, his Edwardian heirs burned all documentary traces of his existence. Historical research, speculation and fantasy were thrown into the show’s devising process by Davies, who wrote the lyrics and music, and his co-stars Matthew Blake and Dylan Townley and director Alex Swift.
First performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2016, its mix of exuberant energy and irony keeps the tone light. Interspersing songs and sketches, it skips through Victorian music hall turns and operetta, with magpie influences from Gilbert and Sullivan and Monty Python to the television series, Smash. From Henry’s schooldays at Eton, where his roommate’s name is Cameron, to his move to Monte Carlo to live “a pitiful gap-year-style existence of humbleness and incredible poverty cheekbones”, the lyrics are determinedly arch. “We don’t wish to challenge you in any way,” they declare, which of course becomes a challenge to us to look for more than one note: more empathy, more feeling, not only for the anachronistic, self-inventing Henry, but also for his estranged wife, Lillian, played by Matthew Blake in a comic vignette.
More a celebration of the conventions of theatre than an investigation of Paget’s biography, the most engaging scenes are when the trio take to the road, performing in provincial theatres around England to empty houses. What do audiences want, they ask, and as Henry performs his Electric Butterfly Dance – as a cross between Loie Fuller and Freddie Mercury – it is clear that he hasn’t figured that out. It is possible that Henry was the theatrical equivalent of failed opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins, but one of the clever ambiguities of this show is that we will never know for sure quite how bad, or good, he was.
Runs as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival until Friday, September 27th