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Review: How to Win Against History (Young Vic)

After an acclaimed run at the Edinburgh Festival, Seiriol Davies' musical comedy about the 5th Marquis of Anglesey comes to London

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Matthew Blake, Dylan Townley and Seiriol Davies
© Kristina Banholzer

Inspired by the true story of Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th Marquis of Anglesey, excised from history in the early 20th century by his own family after losing a fortune due to his excessively flamboyant lifestyle, Seiriol Davies' piece is billed as a musical, but it isn't really. It's a freewheeling cabaret fusion of Cambridge Footlights-like revue and glam rock, with a bit of contemporary operatics and anachronistic knockabout comedy thrown in. A huge hit in Edinburgh and on tour, it now comes to the Young Vic for Christmas following a slew of rave reviews and wonderful word-of-mouth.

The press night audience laughed like drains, joined in lustily with the singalong (in German no less), applauded as and when instructed by cue cards, and generally seemed to be having a terrific time. I wish I knew why.

Paget's tale is undoubtedly interesting, and timely too given his refusal to conform to heteronormative standards of dress and behaviour, yet the treatment here, in Alex Swift's glittering, flippant production, is relentlessly self-indulgent. As played by Davies – who actually hails from Anglesey – Paget emerges as a manic Puckish figure, who apparently never came across a facial tic, knowing look or vocal extravagance he didn't feel the need to employ. While Davies' energy is undeniably admirable, the character is too mannered and frankly irritating to be engaging.

As the actor accompanying him (Paget fancied himself as a performer and even had the chapel at his family pile converted into a theatre), co-deviser Matthew Blake fares rather better, getting great comic mileage out of a simian Daily Mail journalist (I told you it was anachronistic) among other cameos. Musical director Dylan Townley makes up the third member of the cast and is lugubriously amusing. Unfortunately, the movement and comedy ‘business' is too imprecise and sloppily executed to genuinely impress, and I wonder if that is the result of the same company playing the show for too long.

Part of the point being made here seems to be that it's the winners in life that get to choose who makes it into the history books, and this campy, scattershot, intermittently amusing piece of theatre is an attempt at reclaiming a virtually forgotten society reprobate (Paget's bittersweet finale is entitled "I Almost Won"). Personally, I'm not sure he's worth the effort – he was a narcissist who treated his wife abominably, pi**ed a massive inherited fortune up the wall and, at least as scripted here, wasn't particularly witty.

I found Davies' notes in the published script more entertaining than most of the show, and the performance was at least brief, clocking in at under 80 minutes. What I have to admit though is that my dour reaction was in marked contrast to the happiness of the majority of the people around me. They were having a ball, whereas I felt as though I'd gatecrashed a party to which I hadn't been invited.

How to Win Against History runs at the Young Vic until 30 December.