Melissa Blease reviews Trying It On, written and performed by David Edgar, on at Ustinov Studio in Bath
until 7 September
“Imagine all the people, living life in peace” – that’s the mantra my parents lived by, complete with all the marches, slogans, late-night debates and music (oh, the music!) that came with the whole, gloriously optimistic ideology of the late 1960s. The times they were a’changin’ indeed – and the young people were at the forefront of the revolution. But everybody, eventually, had to “get real, man”… and nothing dampens the ardour as effectively as growing up.
In 1968, David Edgar was 20 years old and in his second year at university. In the same year, both Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy were assassinated, Enoch Powell delivered his infamous “rivers of blood” speech, the Vietnam War raged on… and the students, including Edgar, were passionately revolting. By the mid-1970s, Edgar was a prolific writer who’d already gained a reputation as one of the UK’s leading “literary leftwing luminaries.” His 1976 play Destiny – analysing how and why the far-right National Front was becoming a political force to be seriously reckoned with, and marking the start of his long-term, fruitful relationship with the RSC – became a smash hit.
Today, Edgar is 71. He still writes prolifically, he still works with the RSC, he still thinks, and thinks, and thinks… and he’s wondering, yet again, how did fellow members of his generation – the supposed proponents of change for the better – enable Brexit, stifle human rights and once again allow far-right forces to dominate the political landscape? It’s time for Edgar to have a serious conversation with his 20-year-old self.
Trying It On – a compact, easy-to-digest one-man show is that conversation: one part intimate autobiography, one part attempted apologia on behalf of his generation, and all parts a thoughtful, well-balanced insight into the human condition, and how that ‘condition’ impacts on politics. In his very first outing as a performer, Edgar is the perfect host… or, perhaps, middle-class supper party guest of our dreams: the one who is allowed to dominate the conversation because he’s interesting, and funny, and clever, and self-effacing, and just-the-right-amount-of-charming to hold court.
Beginning with a show of hands in response to questions along the lines of how your parents voted, how the audience voted when they were younger and how the audience vote now – including, of course, whether we’re in or out of Europe – and ending with a here-and-now 20-year-old putting her own oar in, we follow Edgar on his contemplative journey, aided and abetted by a host of pre-recorded talking head cameos from the likes of political commentator and former communist David Aaronovitch, sociologist and political activist Hilary Wainwright, and leading figurehead of the international left, Tariq Ali.
But there’s no tub-thumping, or rabble-rousing, or heavy handed spiel to digest. This is not a political rally, or a call to arms; no gauntlets are thrown, no divisions amplified. Edgar’s analysis of his younger self is wry and compassionate, his analysis of where we’re at today compassionate and – yes – democratic. I can’t be the only member of the audience who left wishing Edgar was a politician rather than a clever, comfortable and, by his own admission, comfortably-off comrade, comfortable with his fellow comfortably-off comrades who these days wear comfortable clothes before taking to their comfortable seat in the theatre and look forward to a comfortable sleep in their comfortable beds while the uncomfortable world around them rages on without them putting their discomfiting oar in.
Trying It On concludes that, despite their failings, the Sergeant Pepper generation didn’t get lost, or bitter, or soft, or selfish – they just grew up, for better or worse, depending on which direction grown-up life took them in. And they, like me, hope you will enjoy the show.
Images courtesy of China Plate Theatre