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: 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

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.