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Trying It On review at Birmingham Repertory Theatre – ‘energised with humour and humility’

David Edgar in Trying it On. Photo: Arnim Friess David Edgar in Trying it On. Photo: Arnim Friess
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After a writing career spanning 50 years, celebrated playwright David Edgar makes his professional debut as a performer in a measured and moving show about activism, ageing, and the cyclical struggle against far-right populism.

Weaving Edgar’s professional history into the story of leftist protest in England, Trying It On sees the author move from self-published pamphlets to writing for the Royal Shakespeare Company, struggling to square his privilege with his political convictions.

A pleasant, softly-spoken performer, Edgar reads from an autocue at the back of the auditorium, though you’d never notice if he didn’t draw attention to it with a charming self-deprecation. This soon develops into self-dissection as he addresses his younger self and his whole generation.

Frankie Bradshaw’s set is based around a vast wall of cardboard boxes, representing the notes and clippings amassed throughout Edgar’s career and packed with smaller props, angle lamps, Matryoshka dolls, and red balloons. Frequently, fragments of video interviews are projected on to this backdrop, where several well-known commentators, journalists and activists discuss their radical pasts and current political views.

Director Christopher Haydon gives Edgar just enough to do to keep the performance from feeling static, with items being unpacked, tape cassettes being flipped, and cardboard signs being discarded a la Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. If the pace slackens occasionally, a subversive twist towards the end gives the show a necessary and deeply affecting shot of energy, ending on a note that is at once impassioned, angry and galvanising.

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David Edgar’s autobiographical analysis of recent social change is energised with humour and humility