HOW TO WIN AGAINST HISTORY – Ovalhouse Theatre, London.
How to Win Against History is an offbeat gem. Full to bursting with jokes of all kinds, from puns to political commentary. The musical numbers are lyrical, with some pleasing harmonies. But the biggest draw of this one-act extravaganza, is the heartening message that it’s actually totally fabulous to be “too weird for the world”.
Seiriol Davies and Aine Flanagan Productions have based their musical on the true tale of Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey, whose lavish lifestyle secured him an everlasting place in the history books – much to the dismay of the Paget family who, apparently, tried to destroy all evidence of his existence. Davies, who also plays Henry, portrays the Marquess as an adorable, happy-go-lucky, aristocrat. It is impossible not to be taken in by his puppy-dog eyes and sequin-studded ballet shoes. In the opening scene, Henry professes to want to be “mainstream”, but he can never quite understand why other people don’t love glittering ball-gowns, or “golden thinking thrones” as much as he does. And given how much fun he seems to have, it’s a wonder why we aren’t all donning our sequins and putting on touring plays!
Sharing the stage with Davies’ endearing Henry, is Matthew Blake who plays Henry’s charming actor friend, as well as a few others (like Henry’s Eton ‘friend’ Cameron – a great excuse for a few jibes at our insular ruling class) and Dylan Townley who bashes out a bright accompaniment on the electric keyboard. The trio complement each other wonderfully. Blake and Davies match each other for exuberance and lightning-fast delivery, and Townley breaks up the pace with some offbeat punchlines. The three all have versatile voices, well-suited for comedy songs. They swap from baritone to falsetto without a hiccup, and rocket through some tongue-twisters flawlessly.
The show aims to be light-hearted and heart-warming rather than thought-provoking. Although it was Henry’s cross-dressing and ambiguous sexuality that isolated him in the early 20th century, the play doesn’t dwell on these difficulties. Even after Henry loses his fortune, succumbs to “some lung thing”, and has all his belongings burnt by his family, he remains positive, bravely declaring that he “sort of won” his battle against history. The positivity is infectious. The show’s simple message – that you can’t fight against who you are, but why try when it’s so much fun to be yourself – leaves a lasting smile on your face.
Davies has written the musical from the perspective of a modern audience. There are a number of fun anachronisms thrown in, and the three performers frequently address the audience directly. In fact, audience participation is encouraged (we even get to do a bit of singing!), and works very well.
The high density of jokes means that some pass us by too quickly to trigger a laugh, and occasionally we’re still too busy laughing at an earlier joke to notice that another is coming our way. But on the whole How to Win Against History is a joyful and very funny.
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By Andrea White
21st – 23rd July 2016
Ovalhouse Theatre, London, SE11 5SW.