Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, was a singularly remarkable man. He was also an extraordinarily brave man for his day. Born in the depths of the strait-laced Victorian age, he lived a life of extravagance, exuberance and theatricality, fuelling his penchant for cross-dressing and frittering away his estate’s millions on gowns, jewels and theatre.
Henry was a committed narcissist, a man who could not love another more than he loved himself. He indulged himself with wanton abandon: as soon as he became Marquess in 1898 at the age of 23, he set about using his privileged, financial freedom to carve a lifestyle for himself that raised Victorian eyebrows. He converted the chapel in the grounds of the family home at Plas Newydd on Anglesey into a theatre, and staged his own productions, with himself as the star.
It wasn’t long before Henry’s indulgences resulted in the family’s riches drying up, and he fell into considerable debt, having to sell off his worldly goods and even remortgage his properties. He effectively destroyed his family’s legacy by spending it all on frocks.
As soon as Henry was dead, his family set about attempting to erase him from history. They burnt his diaries and letters, destroyed all photographs of him, and tried to get the Paget dynasty back on track, as if he’d never existed.
Matthew Blake, Tom Penn and Seiriol Davies
Henry’s story is told with an enormous amount of tongue-in-cheek wit in How to Win Against History, written by and starring Seiriol Davies. It takes the form of a musical comedy, with the emphasis more confidently on the comedy. The three performers nudge at the fourth wall just enough to make the audience feel part of the action, and this in turn enables the audience to feel closer to Henry, who is a sensitive and vulnerable soul at the best of times.
Seiriol Davies plays Henry, dressed throughout in a silvery-blue gown and holey stockings, while Matthew Blake plays Henry’s artistic partner Alexander Keith with overwhelming exuberance and confidence. Tom Penn provides musical accompaniment and the occasional vocal contribution, and all three work cohesively together. Despite this being a developmental performance, the show is obviously very well rehearsed. Indeed, it has to be, given the complexity of many of the lyrics, some of which are delivered with machine-gun rapidity, like asides in brackets.
The off-the-wall, overtly camp style of humour is at first exhilarating, prompting belly laughs aplenty from the whole audience. Some people were in tears chuckling at the unadulterated silliness of proceedings. But one drawback to this cavalcade of fun is the length. At 90 minutes (and no interval), it starts to feel a bit of a slog toward the end, not because the quality drops, but because it’s hard to sustain that level of silliness over such a period. It’s perhaps the same reason why the Goodies or the Goons never made a feature film; even the Pythons were pushing it sometimes. The spontaneous wackiness is brilliant for an hour or so, but at 90 minutes, it gets a little taxing.
As it’s developmental, it’s fair to say there is room for improvement. The excursion to Germany could be cut out easily, although that would deprive the show of one of its funniest and cleverest puns about drinking a gin and Teutonic (well, I laughed!). Structurally, it might be better not to tell Henry’s entire story in the opening moments: telling the audience at the top of the show that he blew his millions and died penniless at the age of 29 in Monte Carlo removes any curiosity the audience might have about this mysterious figure’s story. We instantly know where it’s heading, and we know it’s not a good place, but it might be more effective to have the story tell itself, complete with its tragic, heart-breaking conclusion. As the show itself reveals all at the start, I don’t feel guilty about doing the same myself in this review.
Seiriol Davies is wonderful as Henry, supplying pathos and humour in equal measure, and displaying a wonderfully expressive face. Matthew Blake is a tour de force of confidence and talent, displaying an impressive stage presence which fits perfectly with his character. Tom Penn’s taciturn role works well too, meaning that when he does speak, it’s even funnier.
How to Win Against History’s ultimate message is that Henry Cyril Paget, despite almost being erased from history, was actually a winner. His bravery in being determined to be himself for most of his short life – wearing what he wanted, buying what he desired, doing whatever he wished – is actually pretty inspirational, especially for the time in which he lived. His story would make a really good TV drama or film: Henry was a Quentin Crisp of his day, and although it would seem he caved in to a deep-seated desire to just be “normal” toward the end of his life, the show’s conclusion that Henry was ultimately a winner because he did not hide what he was is liberating and empowering.
Be yourself, Henry is told. And that is the best advice anybody can give, even today. The fact this show has been written and exists means that Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, will always be a winner against history.#
Pontio, Bangor, Seiriol Davies & Aine Flanagan Productions