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How to Win Against History review at Assembly George Square, Edinburgh – ‘a glittering production’

How to Win Against History Matthew Blake (left) and Seiriol Davies in How to Win Against History. Photo: Rah Petherbridge

While one could accurately describe How to Win Against History as a biographical musical about the life of Henry Cyril Paget, fifth Marquis of Anglesey, this exuberant piece of musical theatre is richer than that makes it sound: it’s a real charmer, sweet and sad, rather odd and very funny.

Seiriol Davies – a regular collaborator of Caroline Horton – has created a compelling portrait of a man who lived large and died young. The fabulously wealthy, aristocratic Paget had a penchant for jewellery and elaborate costumes, for customising his cars so that their exhaust pipes sprayed perfume. He gutted the ancestral chapel to build a theatre and ended up frittering away the family fortune, before expiring in Monte Carlo before the age of 30. A true English eccentric, he was clearly also a colossal narcissist, and possibly a bit of a shit to his wife. Davies – sequin-clad and looking like a fin de siecle Alexis Colby – is not blind to the contradictions of the man’s character.

The writing is full of shiny asides, nimble word-play and lyrical intricacy. How to Win says all manner of things about identity, privilege, legacy, art and the nature of biography, while never losing sight of when the next joke should land. Alex Swift’s glittering production has a lot of fun with the conventions of musical theatre and the whole thing is winningly performed by Davies and Matthew Blake, with musical accompaniment by Dylan Townley (and his hair). A total pleasure.

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Exuberant, smart, strange and quirky chamber musical inspired by the life of an English eccentric