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Theatre review Absolutely fabulous chronicle of a notorious cross-dresser

How to Win Against History
Young Vic Theatre, London

HOW to Win Against History was a big hit at last year's Edinburgh festival, winning multiple awards, and now this funny, irreverent and deeply provocative musical on the odd and unusual life of the mega-rich Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquis of Anglesey, rightly gets a run in London.
Paget is played by Seiriol Davies, who’s also author of the show's book, music and lyrics.
It tells the story of the marquis — always viewed as “different” — who, when his father passes away, inherits the vast wealth of his estate at the turn of the last century and can really give free rein to his love of theatre, performance and utterly fabulous dresses.
With songs and dramatic sequences, the show draws on cabaret traditions to tell the story which Davies, Matthew Blake and Dylan Townley perform with astonishing flair and precision.
The actual historical record of Paget is fairly sparse, partly because his family burnt his archive after his death and diaries, letters and pictures were all destroyed as a direct result of his family’s shame and disgust at his transgressive behaviours.
How to Win never lets us forget his family’s destructive acts and points out that, more broadly, it constituted an act of violence to queer history and was a moment of loss for the queer community. But what Davies and company do so brilliantly is to take that extant slim history and turn it into something complex, layered and fabulous, a politically vital and celebratory act.
Yet that doesn’t mean that this is simply a Paget hagiography. His cruelty to his wife is confronted head on, as is his privilege, and there’s no attempt to resurrect him as a great artiste. While the show is performed with a riotous verve, in these more critical moments, Davies and Blake demonstrate a brilliant control over the tone of their performances.
Cleverly, the production refuses to pigeonhole Paget and posthumously understand him as homosexual. Rather, it simply celebrates him for what's he's known as — a cross-dresser. The musical reveals this powerful and celebratory truth about him, one that no destructive act can make invisible.
And that’s really wonderful.
Runs until December 30, box office: youngvic.org

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