Touring – reviewed in Bristol
Then Young Vic, London – 30 November-30 December 2017
Occasionally the pick of the fringe can fall a little flat when seen in the cold light of day as they trudge along on nationwide tours on the buzz of their Fringe Firsts and five-star reviews. It is easy to see why Seriol Davies’ flamboyant chamber opera got everyone talking at the Edinburgh fringe.
It’s the kind of work that will enliven a night as well as any tequila slammer. You couldn’t imagine a better show to help finish a six-show day without the need for any narcotic. What is heartening is that on a cold November night in Bristol it still sparks with theatrical fire, another five-star night in an autumn season filled with them.
Only the British could have produced as flamboyant and controversial a character as Henry Cyril Paget, the Fifth Marquis of Anglesey who lost his family fortune to a blitz of frocks and jewels and a desire to make theatre for the people. And only the British could provide an entertainment framework to support this historically dubious biography with its mix of Gilbert and Sullivan, Monty Python and Victorian and Weimar music hall.
Paget may have died penniless at the age of 29 in Monte Carlos but he blitzed a trail all of his own. It’s a reminder that life doesn’t have to go down the path that seems pre-ordained, that other choices are available. It also cleverly is a warning to artists to ensure that they place their audience at the heart of what they do.
For as Henry’s self-appointed acting trope head across country to produce vehicles for the Marquis in Shakespeare and Wilde, who and why art is created for is interrogated. He may originally state that he wants to create art for all, for his work to be ‘mainstream’ but as the audiences refuse to flock, the actors get more and more obsessed with making fun for themselves. If the contemporary theatre scene can sometimes be criticised for artists talking and responding only to themselves, this purports that this way ruin comes. As the ideas become bigger and baggier, the designs more opulent, the song goes from how the audience reacted to how the actors felt. How often has this talk rung through restaurants and pubs across the land at post-show drunken debriefs?
Not that losing its audience is a problem How To Win Against History faces. Its 70 minutes are deliriously entertaining, a mix of absolute lunacy and lyrical mastery. If the writing reminds me of Tim Minchin at his most subversive ‘E-ton E-ton/ pull up a peasant to put your feet on’, it also benefits from a frenzied and fully committed performance from Davies himself. Supported by Dylan Towney on keyboard and the wonderful Matthew Blake playing all other roles it’s a work that demands performers right on top of their material and speed of dialogue being rat-a-tatted out at a pace that hasn’t been required since Noel Coward hung up his pen. Davies’ Henry is a fabulous Queen with a constant flash of fear behind the eye, as though he is aware that at any time the glitzy edifice that he has built up will come crumbling down. When it inevitably does its ending is painfully poignant, a slide from frenzy to introspection.
It is, all in all a full-on-gem, a-laugh-a-minute riot that addresses society and queer identity but never for a second slacks in offering its audience a good time. Paget may have been forgotten for a long time but one would expect he would have been tickled pink with this glittery, subversive tribute.