Young Vic Theatre, London – until 23 December 2017
A SPANGLED ANGLESEY ARISTOCRAT WALKS AGAIN… One way to win, if your own era rejects you, is to be so spectacularly odd that two centuries later a musical theatremaker gets obsessed with you and recreates your avatar onstage. Growing up on Anglesey, Seiriol Davies found out about Henry Cyril Paget, the fifth Marquess of that isle, descended from a hero of Waterloo and expected to carry on the line.
He preferred to cross-dress (sometimes as Eleanor of Aquitaine, sometimes as a butterfly), gut the family chapel to make a theatre starring himself, marry (rather lavenderly) a poor girl for whom he bought an entire jewellers’ stock only to drape it on her naked and leave out the other marital duty; and generally waste the family money until he died near-destitute in Monte Carlo. And was described brutally in obits as “a strange and repellent spirit opaquely incomprehensible and pathetically alone” , though the Times did say that for all his eccentricity Anglesey quite liked him.
Well, these days such a history – though his family burned all the Marquess’ diaries and letters in disgust – is definitely one you can win with. And Davies makes it happen, playing poor Henry himself, with alongside him Matthew Blake as his theatrical follower and helper, and a comically dour Dylan Townley at a keyboard. The result is a strange wild camp and ultimately endearing squib, 75 minutes long, walking a tightrope between revue (it began at Edinburgh) and commemorative sermon on individuality. In a spangled blue cocktail frock with a slit to reveal silk stockings Davies speaks and sings, sometimes faint and vulnerable and lonely, sometimes beltingly exhibitionist. There are jokes, as he and Blake go on tour, about the touring lives of actors, which are very funny (the “it went well’ chorus particularly telling).
There is real pain sometimes, though not often, and a proper sense of how confusing it is to be different in a world and rank that wants you solid and Imperial. It is the same message about cross-dressing eccentricity and self- assertion as in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie: except of course that Jamie has a Mum who loves him, classmates who come round, and a 21st life. Oh, how we have come on…
Fine jokes work, not least a spoof interview with the Daily Mail in which he has to pretend he loves tweed more than spangles; but it is the portrait of poor brave extravagant Henry is as a man that sticks. 75 minutes was enough for this romp, but I wouldn’t mind a less arch, deeper imagined biography of him.