Before I start, I’m just going to point out that the remainder of How to Win Against History‘s run at the Young Vic is returns only. It’s had two successful runs at the Edinburgh Fringe and been on a national tour since October. It’s had five-star reviews, and it’s already been reviewed on this very website. So obviously it doesn’t particularly matter what I say here. If you wanted to see the show, you’ve probably already seen it. Either that or you’re currently on hold to the Young Vic box office. What’s their muzak like by the way?
But here I am writing this review anyway. A review of musical about the 5th Marquis of Anglesey. His name was Henry Cecil Paget and he was born in 1875. What we know about him for sure is that he squandered his family fortune, got himself into massive debt and died at the age of 29 in Monte Carlo, that he turned the chapel on his family’s estate into a theatre, that he had a brief marriage to Lilian Florence Maud Chetwynd, and that he went to Eton.
We also have reports from others about his unconventional behaviour: that he used to do “snake-like dances”, that he was a cross-dresser, that his relationship with his wife was never consummated, that the closest they got to it was him getting her to lie down naked while he covered her in jewels.
The reason we know so little about him is that his cousin, who inherited the estate after his death, had all his papers burnt, presumably for fear of the further shame they might bring upon the family. A great pity for historians of theatre, gender and celebrity, but a great opportunity for Seiriol Davies and his collaborators. Without the weight of biographical detail, they are able to reimagine Henry’s story for themselves. The form that this takes is a three-handed musical, of course, with very spangly outfits, something that – even from the very little we know about him – we can imagine the Marquis would have approved of.
On a technical level, it’s disarmingly virtuosic. Davies, as the Marquis, has a voice that quivers with uncertainty and embarrassment at moments, only to fling itself into show-tune bravura at others. The songs themselves are catchy, charming with the gently satirical edge to their lyrics counterbalanced neatly by the levity of the music.
The story itself is pretty much just the events that I’ve gone through above in a different order. The prologue tells you everything that is going to happen anyway “in case you briefly lose consciousness for some reason later on.” Despite being freed from the shackles of biography by the burning of the papers, the devising company don’t provide us with anything more than witty sketch comedy in musical theatre form for each of these events: a sexless marriage, being a “fag” at Eton, touring the country with a theatre show that the Marquis wrote and directed himself.
What saves it from feeling plodding are the songs themselves, the charm of the performers and the fact that it’s only an hour long. In this, it feels like a classic Edinburgh show that doesn’t necessarily translate as well to the world outside the fringe. The humorously boastful title is obviously never going to be something the piece itself can live up to, and I’m sure it was intentionally chosen as such. Unfortunately, though, it serves as a constant reminder of how the story of the Marquis never really evolves from amusing anecdote into something more challenging or insightful.
How to Win Against History is at the Young Vic until December 30th. For more details, click here.