History is written by the victors. The Victorian family of Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, were so outraged and appalled by his behaviour – which included gutting the family chapel to turn it into a theatre and spending the family fortune on frocks and ruby-encrusted slippers – that they tried to erase him from it. Now aided by co-conspirators Matthew Blake and Dylan Townley, Seiriol Davies gives him his revenge in this clever chamber opera of crackpot fabulousness, high camp and unexpected poignancy.
Born in 1875 and glittering brightly for just 29 years, Henry was a child of the British empire reared on the playing fields of Eton. His family thought he was born to rule in crusty high Victorian style, but the cross-dressing Henry had his own entirely unique style and thought he was born to perform. Even when nobody would pay to see him.
It is life as a performance that we get in this three-hander in which Davies – all wide-eyed narcissism and firework enthusiasms – prances across the stage like a joyous, destructive imp. This verbally intricate, witty show, which tours across the UK post the festival, tries on musical styles in the way that Henry himself tried on dresses and identities. The more the world rejects Henry, the harder the cast work, like desperate end-of-the-pier artists aware that if they can’t win over the audience with the glittering, glamour of theatre, they might notice the cracked shell footlights and tawdry emptiness beneath.
This is affectionate towards Henry and on his side as a man who dared to be different in a world where conformity mattered. But it is no hagiography. Henry was enormously privileged; he treated his poor wife abominably; he was utterly self-obsessed, and may well have been completely talentless. He had pots of money until his accountant told him he had spent it all on dyeing poodles lilac and putting on plays nobody wanted to see.
But it also celebrates a man who refused to take on the role he was given and found another one to play, and in using theatre – the form Henry so adored – to ensure that he is not erased from history it offers a double revenge. Like Henry himself, the show is a complete one-off: a little bit weird, totally absurd, often hilarious and very, very sparkly.