Review: Trying It On at Traverse

“You know what they say about the Traverse, but it’s not all true,” says David Edgar after taking a straw poll and finding several Conservative voters in the audience. If coming to the Traverse as a Tory sounds unlikely, it must doubly be the case for a one-man show by one of the UK’s most vocal left-wing playwrights. Billed as a man looking back to the world-wide student revolt of 1968, the Vietnam war and the assassination of Martin Luther King, it hardly sounds like a night out with Theresa May.

Although it’s far from that, you don’t imagine the Tories in the room will be all that alienated either. That’s partly because Edgar is too much the good-hearted humanist to make anyone unwelcome, but largely because he is his own most vociferous critic. “What a patronising, pompous prick I was,” he says.

In his performing debut, the playwright’s aim is to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable. On the one hand, his generation is the one that came of age with the student upheavals of 1968 (Edgar was born in 1948); on the other, that same generation is the one that voted most enthusiastically for Brexit. How did the open-minded free spirits of what he calls the “Sgt Pepper generation” become the inward-looking, exclusionary cohort that embraced Nigel Farage?

It’s not certain that he reaches an answer but the question is fertile enough to produce a lively trek through the political movements – and counter-movements – of the last 50 years. He circles his subject with the aid of interviews with activists and thinkers, projected in soundbites onto the cardboard boxes that form his writer’s garret set, designed by Frankie Bradshaw. At the same time, he provides a memoir of his theatrical life from childhood productions in the back garden to major works, such as The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby for the RSC.

If there’s a schism in the country, there’s also a split in Edgar himself and, with good Marxist dialectics, he turns the fire on himself, acknowledging that a younger generation sees things differently still. It’s funny, thoughtful, contemplative stuff – and for all his ambivalence his old radical fire is not extinguished yet.

Trying It On, Traverse Theatre, 28 Jul – 25 Aug (not 19), times vary

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