Review: How To Win Against History, Young Vic

How do you win against history when you’re a cross-dressing Marquess with a family inheritance to squander and a love for all things DRAMA? Well, the play doesn’t actually answer this question. At all. Instead, it makes a play about it to retrieve a story from the jewels of history and tell you a lot about a darling character, who’s sort of real life, in song. He’s the 5th Marquis of Anglesey, Henry Cyril Paget, played by Seiriol Davies. It’s flamboyant. And then some.

It’s also very Edinburgh. VERY Edinburgh. There’s a tonne of theatre in-crowd jokes about flyering and interval times and multi-rolling. With a defiantly awkward keys player, a hammy supporting everyman and a sequin bespangled lead it’s almost everything you want from a three man fringe musical. The set is golden and sparkly and full of fairy lights. So regal. Much glory. But it’s a tiny bit too small for the Maria space at the Young Vic to really fill it with splendour.

The first songs are killer. There’s one about being mainstream – in life, in theatre – and giving the audience what they want, which deliciously sends up musical tropes. It firmly sets up the pandering to the audience that consumes the rest of the play. Another bashes into stereotypes of Eton posh boys who use peasants as their foot stools. They are punctuated with a camp “ahh” by Harry and Alexander (Matthew Blake), a self-referential affection that delivered a roaring laugh without fail. Alex Swift’s production always, always wins the silences and makes the best humour from awkward pauses I’ve seen.

The rest of the songs, lots of other people found very funny (as far as I could tell from the laughter dynamics) but I think it starts to lose it a bit around half an hour in. The musical ballad Davies sings isn’t as evocative as I’d hope – although his falsetto is something else. When the play might have been at its most tender, it loses some of its heart.

The anachronisms are what make this show. The blatant contemporary references and slips into modern vocabulary are hilarious. A roguish and animalistic parody of Quentin from the Daily Mail is the most risky choice of the night but it’s the take down of modern marriage idealism and satire on the mantra to “be yourself” that really did it for me. It’s all remarkably ridiculous and spectacularly camp with moments that cut through with a deeply affecting human edge.

How To Win Against History is at the Young Vic till 30 Dec 2017.