I had expected How to Win Against History to be pretty much a one-man show from Seiriol Davies with support from Matthew Blake and Dylan Townley.
In fact all three cast members are integral to the performance which is an infectious mixture of charm, humour, campness, silliness and rather a lot of poignancy.
Basically, it is the story of Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th Marquess of Anglesey who blew the family fortune on his lavish spending on a theatrical and theatre lifestyle, told in about 75 minutes (hard to tell exactly how long as it took the Sherman rather a long time to get the doors closed so the performance could begin and full marks to Dylan Townley for lots of facial ad libbing to fill the time). It is also a story of not fitting into the norms of society or perhaps more accurately of being extremely rich and being able to not fit into the norms of your society.
There have been other more high-brow performances based on the unorthodox aristocrat including a dance performance from Marc Rees an Marc Almond album, but this is more an anecdotal biography of the Victorian heir who spent, spent, spent, including turning the family chapel at Plas Newydd, which he temporarily renamed Anglesey Castle, to turn it into a theatre and jewel, silk and silver costumes for the theatre and for his own wardrobe. He is also said to have had his car converted so perfume came from the exhaust, bought his wife an entire Paris jewellery shop’s contents, hired the finest actors and paid them ridiculously high wages. This chamber opera/mini musical also tells of his misfit life at Eton, marriage of convenience and divorce, starring in his own productions, touring Britain and also the Continent, particularly Germany, including his now lost Butterfly Dance, bankruptcy, selling all and eventually dying aged just 29 in Monte Carlo.
Yes, Davies is the glorious heart of the show, wearing one of the Marquess’ documented blue, sparkling costumes topped with a winged headdress that appears in one of the very few surviving photographs. The family was so horrified by this non-conformist that they destroyed everything they could to expunge him from history – and therefore the title of this show.
It does not shy away from the decadence, the waste, the narcissism, the selfishness and the consequences of his life and lifestyle. But it is all with obvious fondness for the man and he is portrayed as a naive, wide-eyed (literally) innocent who never fitted in and again took the advice (literally) to be himself.
However, it is also all presented from a very contemporary sensibility. He is referred to as a cross-dresser, there is some modern sexuality suggestions which are unproven, and the witty script has jokes about today and even parodies a Daily Mail reporter that says more about how that newspaper is viewed in the 21t century than in Victorian times. It does not detract from the show but does speak more of today than the late Victorian age when excess was the norm, when the ultra rich did lavish vast amounts on vanity projects (buildings, clothes, jewels, parties) and where some gender stereotypes were indeed being challenged, think Oscar Wilde and artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, the feyness of pre Raphaelites and Romantics figures such as Byron. It ridicules some of what was acceptable behaviour and attitudes (the fagging system at public schools, ornate military uniforms, colonialism, class superiority) but in portraying the Marquis as a little bit of a twit it detracted from the rich irony in how he was regarded and, from what I should imagine, exploited.
What perhaps made Paget survive is the fact that he did bankrupt the family and the sheer attempt to wipe him from history did ensure that in more liberal times he would be rediscovered.
Back to the cast. While Davies is sensational so too are the other cast members, especially Matthew Blake as the multi-character playing part of what is mainly a duet. In fact, he has the hardest work, racing from character to character, around the space (occupied by an ornate theatre screen, a few golden pillar props and the similarly dress up keyboard). It is also deftly directed by Alex Swift.
The show is a combination of song and chats to the audience (with lovely little spontaneity such as dealing with a barking guide dog), getting the audience members to join in the chorus of a song (in German) and respond to the Marquis’ performances. Seirol has an interesting sining voice which ranges from the high, light and slight, to a rich baritone. It will be interesting to hear him in other shows. Blake is extremely flexible in drawing all manner of characters, including a duet with himself. With Townley on the keyboard and also singing this is a well-crafted short musical work that zips along with it impossible to loose the smile from your face.
There are performances at Galeri on November 25 which you really should not miss and then after a show in Reading at London’s Young Vic throughout December but I believe they London shows are all sold out. But it is always worth checking.
Touring in Wales is in proud association with Pontio, Bangor.
An Áine Flanagan Productions, Seiriol Davies and Young Vic co-production