Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Seiriol Davies Still Winning

The Best of Touring Theatre

How to Win Against History- Seiriol Davies & Aine Flanagan Productions , Young Vic London , December 16, 2017
The Best of Touring Theatre by How to Win Against History- Seiriol Davies & Aine Flanagan Productions “How to Win Against History” has had a long run. At Edinburgh in 2016 Pontio was co-producer. In 2017 it returned to Edinburgh in a bigger venue to critical applause and audience sell-outs. “A glittering devised musical, full of wit and played with panache” wrote a clear-eyed reviewer “...pulled off with wide-eyed innocence and mischievous glee.” Lyn Gardner described it as a “chamber opera of crackpot fabulousness, high camp and unexpected poignancy.”

On the autumn tour Aberystwyth had to put on an extra performance to meet audience demand. It ends the year with a month at a London venue whose high profile has ensured that every major print publication has been there. They too universally liked what they saw. With its insouciant merriment, its glitter and spangles it is well suited to the Christmas season slot.

Time Out's thumbnail description uses the adjective “campy” but it does not suit the production. Seiriol Davies presents Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey with a winning sincerity and directness. The cross-dressing, akin to Grayson Perry, is simply how he is. Pathos is undercurrent to the display, a powerful quality to communicate to an audience. Certainly to be so out of kilter with background, class and expectation is hard. There is a song “boots” which looks to the duties of empire for men of “courage and footballness.” The title refers to the Paget dynasty's attempt to obscure his place in history by destroying his personal documents and other memorabilia. An obituary writes cruelly of a life that has been lived in vain.

There is much art to “How to Win against History.” Paget is certainly not “normal/ the kind of man to take you to a rugby club formal.” A rhyme like “want to be like pistons/ Following the path of least resistance” is way above average lyric-writing. Matthew Blake plays his collaborator, actor Alexander Keith, and a range of other roles including wife, Lilian Chetwynd. Her new husband, on asking her to undress, covers her entirely in diamonds. The two lead players are complemented by the standing figure of Dylan Townley a few feet to the rear on keyboard. In visual contrast to the front-of-stage animation he is a doleful, long-faced presence in curious knickerbockers. Structurally “How to Win Against History” concludes satisfyingly with an ending that arcs back to its opening.

Whether Paget's passion for theatre was matched with talent will never be known. Keith points out that his advertising for an audience is somewhat misplaced. He advises that printed handbills might be more effective than a line of flaming torches leading to the theatre on the Anglesey estate. His fellow aesthete aristocrat, Lord Berners, was a man of genuine artistic ability. He too had a taste for the dyeing of animals. With Paget it was poodles, for Berners it was making pigeons pink. But when they meet in Dresden Berners is mystified by the dance that he sees. The audience is invited to sing a chorus of “Ich bin hôflich aber verwirrt.” “I am polite but confused.”

Humour is mysterious. The script includes the greatest ever tribute to tweed, its uses taken to peaks of surreality. An actor on a stage leans towards a front row of spectators and asks “Is my name Cuthbert?” It sounds absurd in description. In actuality it is hilarious, the alchemy of live performance.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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