Truth is often stranger than fiction, and the true story Henry Cyril Paget really is bizarre. I’d never heard of him before – a fact I now find shocking, given that his was a life is so fabulous, remarkable and sad he really does deserve a place in our history books and hearts. If you don’t know who he is you should go and see this show, which provides rather more oomph than your average Wikipedia entry.
He lived a short, lavish life, blowing his inheritance on parties, flamboyant costumes and the theatre. He died penniless, disowned by his family, and was subsequently torn out of the history books. But now he’s back, and this time he’ll win. He’s telling his own story (via Seiriol Davies and Co.) – and how better than in the form of a camp, chaos-filled musical?
How to Win finds it feet somewhere between a history lesson, a cabaret and an episode of Monty Python. This is Davies’ form-defying, cross-dressing musical romp in which he plays the ostentatious, often touching, Marquess. Supporting him is Punchdrunk’s Matthew Blake, who brings a lot of gusto to the performance, switching between Paget’s friend and manager Alexander Keith, his ex-wife Lillian and a whole bunch of other characters who appear in Paget’s madcap world. Dylan Townley provides musical support (and more) with a keyboard and his own brand of eccentricity. The three of them are brilliant to watch; they’ve got bags of energy, absurdity and a real commitment to telling ‘Toppy’s’ tale. The show sometimes seems a bit rough round the edges, but Davies, Blake and Townley are completely entertaining throughout.
The music itself is a lot of fun; not always beautifully sung, but with a wonderful, inventive blend of humour and sadness combining soul, show-tunes, ballads and jazz. The surreal incorporation of the music into the story is cleverly done and emotionally complex. The structure isn’t quite as polished as it could be, but the slightly shambolic charm is a deliberate effect of the show. The plot appears to pack in every aspect of Paget’s life, which in a way is almost too much, and there are some particularly noticeable dips where the story could be better condensed.
The cast, however, are extremely funny. There are several belly-aching moments of whacky, spoof-like comedy reminiscent of Horrible Histories or Blackadder. Often theatricality itself is played upon, as the trio blast through the chaotic story in a whirlwind of dancing, multiroling costume changes, and audience interaction. In the case of the latter, there could and should be even more; at certain points the audience sing in German or are prompted to makes certain sounds, which provides particularly engaging moments. They just don’t come often enough.
How to Win is a thoroughly fun and often very moving experience which will hopefully ensure Henry Cyril Paget assumes his rightful, glittering place in history.