By Niki Northcott, Final Year Spanish and Italian
David Edgar, one of the country’s most prolific playwrights, makes his professional acting debut in autobiographical and highly political Trying It On. His performance, seasoned with humour and a simple charm, creates a thought-provoking piece of entertainment, fit for Bertolt Brecht himself.
Immediately, Edgar ensures that even the foundations of a fourth wall can’t be established. As the house lights remain lit, he introduces us to his seemingly shy stage manager and highlights that he is in fact reading his lines from a teleprompter. Are we sat in a newsroom? We may as well have been.
Within the first ten minutes, we are forced to confess up to our darkest political secrets. Soon after, clips from interviews with activists, such as Hilary Wainwright and Tariq Ali, were projected onto a set constructed out of cardboard boxes and 70s-style filing cabinets. We were prepared to have our politics questioned and challenged, but perhaps not quite in the way we were expecting.
70-year-old Edgar converses with his 20-year-old self; political activist, confident socialist and student, attending The University of Manchester during the apotheotic year of cultural revolution and student protest in 1968. To the predominantly middle-aged audience, this provided for a reflection through the past fifty years, the Sgt. Pepper generation united in a journey through their history: protests, possibilities and political deflections.
As a student in 2019, however, it forced me to consider my own position in the future of politics and incited an undeniable sense of dread that history could just repeat itself. Will we still be chanting Labour leaders’ names at Glastonbury in fifty years time, or will we instead be wondering how on earth we voted Thatcher No. 2 into No. 10 with a landslide victory in the 2030s? It happened for the hippies of the Summer of Love, who’s to say it won’t happen to us?
Just as I began to think that perhaps I was a bit too young to drift off into bittersweet nostalgia, and that perhaps Edgar’s intentions were lost on me, the seemingly one-man-show became a duologue when stage manager Danielle Phillips interrupted. Finally, everything that had niggled during the performance was confronted by this young voice: you can’t call the Vietnamese “yellow people”, David. Sexism wasn’t solved when abortion was made legal, David. Racism didn’t end because of that one anti-discrimination act that time, David.
Suddenly, the atmosphere changed. We were snapped back to the present day and confronted with the reality and power of time and change. Yes, progress has been made. But there is still work to be done.
Phillips opens a box: ‘Oh, here’s our programme by the way’, and we pass them amongst ourselves. Inside the sealed envelope there is indeed a programme, alongside an information leaflet detailing campaigns which the creative team are passionate about, including Stop the War Coalition, Extinction Rebellion and Bloody Good Period.
Director Christopher Haydon artistically incorporated red balloons throughout the performance, first as a socialist symbol, then as a shocking sound effect when popped. In one of the final moments of the performance, Edgar takes one of the remaining balloons and hands it to Phillips. It was a heart-warming moment, symbolic of cross-generational unity, mutual understanding and above all, hope. In a world where 15-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg receives daily abuse and death threats, often from older generations, this touching ending offered significant stimulation to the audience members who left the Tobacco Factory Theatres, both young and old.
There was one more thing in the envelope with the programme. A new, red balloon.
Featured Image: Tobacco Factory Theatres / Arnim Friess
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