David Edgar

Trying it on

David Edgar

Birmingham Rep Door


So, what did happen to the children of the dawning of the age of Aquarius, the Sgt Pepper generation? The generation of long hair, Zapata moustaches, maxi-dresses, burnt bras and the flower power revolution.

It was not just a generation, but a movement, one which changed the face of music, of fashion, of protest, helped end a war and promised the dawn of a new order. It was the decade which changed the world, the 1960s.

Fifty years on it is a generation that voted for Brexit, one that has lost its revolutionary zeal, one, that perhaps, has lost its way.

David Edgar, at 70, and, incidentally, making his professional acting debut, poses the question of where all that revolutionary fervour went in a clever conversation with his 20-year-old self in his one man play(ish) Trying it On.

It really starts in 1968 when Edgar was a drama student at Manchester University . . . and chairman of the Socialist Society as well as editor of the student newspaper, leading a campaign to reinstate two expelled students. In a decade of change which saw The Who and The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Woodstock, and the first man on the moon, 1968 was a tumultuous year.

It started with the Prague Spring, it saw Viet Cong officer Nguyễn Văn Lém publicly executed by South Vietnamese National Police Chief Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, an image which helped turn the US public against the Vietnam War.

In Memphis Martin Luther King Jr was shot dead, in Paris there are student riots, Black Power salutes at the Olympics, and, in Britain, a Vietnam war protest turned violent in front of the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. Incidentally, the same age as Edgar, I was there, in the square, as mounted police charged demonstrators –  Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh as we say.

Edgar talks of his move from Manchester to Bradford and his co-founding of agitprop theatre group, the General Will, a group which eventually started to suffer the congenital divisions of the left with proponents of womens’ rights, gay rights and the downtrodden working classes each arguing about priorities.

edgar New York

David Edgar on a Journey from Birmingham, through Manchester, Bradford, London, Stratford-upon-Avon, and, here, New York. Pictures: Arnim Friess


Slowly though Edgar was being recognised and commissioned, and some 60 plays on, including works for the RSC and National, directed by no less than Tevor Nunn and Peter Hall, many with political or social themes, he is in conversation with his 20-year-old self about whether his views, his dreams, his aspirations and causes have changed. Whether his 70-year-old self still thinks and fights the same battles as the Edgar of half a century ago.

Then there is the difficulty of trying to reconcile the firebrand, pamphlet writing, student activist, agitprop life of the past with the wealthy, property owning pillar of the theatrical establishment.

Edgar tells his tale with refreshing self-deprecation and good humour, surrounded by Frankie Bradshaw’s setting of a wall of carboard boxes and filing cabinets, with odd items such as angle poise lamps, Russian dolls, pamphlets . . . the attic of memories and life.

His conversations with self, or we the audience, are interspersed with projected interviews with well-known commentators or fellow revolutionaries from his past where we are told by one leading revolutionary light of the 60s “If you're not a socialist at the age of 20 you have no heart. If you're not a conservative at the age of 40, you have no head". Not original, but still telling.

Edgars’ life, or at least his way of life, may have changed, but he makes no bones about the fact that while his circumstances may be different and perhaps some views tempered, he is still a champion of civil, citizen’s and human right against right wing populism.

Whether this is a play or not is up to the audience to decide. It is part lecture, part an evening with David Edgar, always amusing, informative and entertaining – there are even audience survey’s thrown in . . . and there is drama at the end which questions whether Sgt Pepper’s Edgar has really moved on with bus-pass Edgar to come to terms with the issues of the 21st century. Is he still a revolutionary or just a relic? Evan, dare we say it, a reactionary?

Director Christopher Haydon gives Edgar enough rope to tell his tale, but not enough to wander into self-indulgence while the changes in pace and style cleverly add to the interest, with items pulled from boxes, or the cassette tape player – of 60’s vintage no doubt – where his 20-year-old self resides, or the memos, cardboard signs or photographs viewed and discarded.

It might be about Edgar, but it is a work which will make people, particularly those contemporaries of Edgar examine their own lives, question whether their vision of a bright new world still shines bright, or has dimmed, or even vanished with time. It’s a different sort of theatre and although it might be Edgar’s story, somehow, he makes it personal, ushering in your own younger self to look questioningly over your own shoulder. To 13-06-18.

Roger Clarke


Trying it on returns to the Midlands at the mac on 12 October and at the RSC  at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, 18-20 October. The Other Place, incidentally, once described by Edgar as “a small tin hut in rural Warwickshire, was where Destiny, about the National Front, his first play for the RSC, was performed. 

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