How To Win Against History is the kind of wildly inventive, occasionally funny, desperate-to-be-groundbreaking, but frustratingly pointless, production which attracts fringe festival attendees in their droves, attendees likely to be pumped with alcohol or other stimulants. It is not a production to see sober. Or one that will impart knowledge. Or inspire or excite. But perhaps that is its point.
I have performed to smaller and less interested houses even than this one, and did it upset me? Yes. But! The joke’s on them. For I am an actor, and if there’s one thing actors are good at, it’s ignoring rejection.
The short description of How To Win Against History on the back of the programme/playscript is as follows:
Henry Cyril Paget. 5th Marquis of Anglesey (1875 – 1905) was born to inherit the Empire. Instead, he burned brightly, briefly and transvestitely through his family’s vast wealth; putting on fabulous plays starring himself, charging round Europe dressed as Queen Eleanor of Acquitaine or sometimes a butterfly, in a car with rose scented fumes. When he died, his vengeful heirs burned every trace of his existence they could find, and carried on as though he’d never have been. Ouch.
Author and star, Seiriol Davies, opines in the Foreward:
I wanted to make something that redressed the balance a tiny bit: that told at least a version of his story as pieced together from a lot of extraordinary events with no internal monologue. With songs and me in a dress and a gag about Kiera Knightley.
The truth about Paget’s life, even a glorified version of it, would surely make for interesting theatre. It seems an extraordinary tale of individualism, intolerance and eradication. It feels as though it should be a tale incredibly relevant to the politics of the 21st Century.
But Davies’ vision for the work is bizarrely idiosyncratic and while there is much to admire about him as a performer and a wordsmith, the result of watching the production is difficult to explain. It’s exhausting to endure, very one-note, astoundingly camp, but not in a stylish way, and long, very long.
The original music is fractured Gilbert and Sullivan with a touch of Sondheim and a soupçon of bubble gum pop. It becomes intensely irritating over time, despite the best efforts of Dylan Townley, who is a masterful dead-pan musical director.
There is interesting work too from Matthew Blake, Davies’ co-star, although variety is not the spice of his delivery for the most part. Still, he and Davies do manage some effective moments.
Dan Saggers’ lighting and Verity Quinn’s designs are very well suited to Alex Swift’s direction of Davies’ narrative. But neither narrative nor direction suggest a real end game – unless it was to make the audience understand the motivations of Paget’s family in seeking to eradicate their non-conformist relative from history.
How To Win Against History is neither provocative nor hilarious. Sadly. It drags on about drag in a way which just, well, drags. There is a lot of talent here which could – and should – be put to better use.