I have found a number of contrived themes as an excuse to review two plays together. Sometimes it’s two in the same town, sometimes they run at the same time, and sometimes it’s on the same theme. A common theme I was not expecting to use, however, is cross-dressing. But, by co-incidence, the only two plays on this subject come in the same month, so, what the hell, let’s have a cross-dressing themed post. (And the title of this post sounds slightly like a certain infamous couple, although neither of them have embarked on a trail of robbery and murder across the USA unless somebody knows something I don’t.)
How to Win Against History
I don’t know if Northern Stage fully realises what they’d got, but it was a massive coup for them to have Seiriol Davies coming to them. How To Win Against History is the very rare Edinburgh Fringe play that people rave about everywhere you go. This easily sold out on a two-night run in Stage 3, the only puzzle being why Northern Stage programmed such a massively successful show in its smallest space. With a bigger push with publicity I reckon this could easily have filled Stage 2. If you were someone who decided to take a punt on a play about the 5th Marquis of Anglesey, who lived his life the way he wanted, then congratulations – you saw the top reviewed Edinburgh Fringe show of 2016, scooping no less than six five-star reviews.
Here’s the spoiler: Henry Cyril Paget doesn’t really win against history. He doesn’t stand a chance. With Victorian society prudish enough to take issue with naked piano legs, they were never going to take a cross-dressing marquis to their hearts. With most records of the real Henry Cyril Paget destroyed and the company reconstructing his life from the few things his family could not reach, we will never know why he chose to do this. Did he choose to use his status to stake his reputation standing up to prudish Victorian values? Maybe, but not in this play. The Cyril imagined here is a naive young man, who seems throughout his life oblivious to the consequences of his choices. If his unconventional lifestyle wouldn’t bring him down, his extravagant theatre tours where he played the lead role would. It’s only a matter of which of comes first.
Prior to this play, Seiriol Davies was probably best known for Caroline Horton’s wondeful Mess. How to Win isn’t a sequel and there’s no need to see one play to enjoy the other. But it is an interesting experience to see both. Mess was very much a colloborative piece, and now that we get to see Seiriol on his own it become clear where a lot of the humour came from. There is always an air of surrealism in the story: “Cyril” is really only a depiction of himself telling his life story are far as he knows, embarrassed to say that – apparently – he treated his wife badly. At other times, we get in-jokes about going on tour (where everyone who’s ever done a fringe gets a knowing nod), an interview with the Daily Mail which couldn’t possibly go wrong, and a piece of audience participation that throws everyone (which I won’t spoil). But throughout this, there’s always a sad tale of rose-tinted self-destruction going on in the background.
Does it live up to the massively steep expectations of the highest reviewed play of the Edinburgh Fringe? I’m not sure, if I had to pick a favourite out of the two, I’d probably pick Mess, but then, we are talking about insanely high hurdle to clear here. It takes what could have been a bleak tale and makes it into a touching story about a man who didn’t fit in and a world not ready for it. And here’s the funny thing: this play has arguably changed the ending to Henry Cyril Paget. For 110 years, the people who wanted his name erased from the history books got their way. Thanks to this play, and the success it’s had in Edinburgh and beyond, suddenly the tables are turned and lots of people have heard of him. Maybe he did win against history after all.
Drag me to Love
And that bring me nicely into this play. A century after Cyril’s tale, how things have changed. Drag Me to Love is Cameron Sharp’s own tale of moonlighting as a drag queen in Sheffield. There is no uproar, no disapproval, just four years in a drag club where everyone is accepted for doing what they want.
One limitation of plays based on actors’ personal experiences is that they can only as eventful as the true story. The play begins with teenage Cameron turning up to a drag club uninvited and quickly working his way up the chain to be a drag act. After that, there’s only small developments in the middle of the play, such as minor rivalries between drag stars. This could have made the middle of the story boring, but it doesn’t, and secret to this is making the delivery of the story very funny. There are plenty of renditions of drag queen favourites throughout the hour-long play, but the high moment of the play has to be the hilarious rendition of Total Eclipse of the Heart.
Surprisingly, the most poignant part of the play comes at the end, after the club goes bust as has to shut down. I try to avoid covering endings of plays too much to avoid spoilers, but here the ending is so strong because events run a full circle. A list of the things Cameron learns adjusting to a normal life again is moving, thing like never being able to unlearn all his dances. And that’s about it – until he find two friends who he talk to about his own life, until he’s ready to bring out the dresses and rediscover Bonnie with the help of his two new Bonnettes.
The cast of three work well together and it wouldn’t be same the the funny and energetic performance they created between them. One small thing to bring up is that their performance looks like it’s designed for an end-stage, but in Alphabetti theatre around two third of the seats are set to the side. I’ll let them off that because no-one knew Alphabetti was changing from end-stage to thrust stage until a few months ago, but if they take this to Edinburgh or Brighton Fringe, audiences and reviewers may not be quite so lenient. Apart from that, I see no other need to change this, and I can see this being a strong contender on the fringe scene as it is. There are times when north-east theatre goes to the fringe on the back of local enthusiasm then underperforms. But my firm call is that this won’t be one of them. If Bonnie and the Bonnettes go to Edinburgh or Brighton – and I hope they do – I think this has what it takes to do well indeed.