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Radio review: Drama: Trying It On, Maydays, Compline, and So What You’re Saying Is

10 March 2023


The play Trying It On (Radio 4, Saturday) by David Edgar was broadcast on Radio 4 on Saturday

The play Trying It On (Radio 4, Saturday) by David Edgar was broadcast on Radio 4 on Saturday

WHEN a play starts with the line “If this was a play. . .”, you know immediately what sort of experience you are in for: the gaze drawn unstoppably towards the navel. Such a play is Trying It On (Radio 4, Saturday) (repeat), David Edgar’s autobiographical self-examination, whose theme is the great playwright’s failure to meet any of the high expectations that his younger self had for him. When once he dreamed of a socialist utopia, he now appears on Christmas University Challenge, and owns a tagine. At every stage of his account, Edgar is questioned by his younger self, or heckled by the conscience of his wife.

This giant essay in narcissism was first broadcast in 2019, and was repeated to accompany the reworking for radio of Edgar’s 1983 play Maydays, broadcast in three parts last week (Radio 4, Monday-Wednesday). Again, the theme is selling out: the central character, Martin Glass, begins his career in an assortment of left-wing groups, and ends up writing for The Sunday Times, which, for Edgar, is presumably the seat of right-wing complacency.

The first episode fails to meet the basic requirement of radio drama: to manage the balance between realistic and heightened language. Lines are uttered that nobody could ever conceive whose brain was not completely addled by years of exposure to political manifestos. The second episode is a considerable improvement. In the more intimate dialogue, Edgar demonstrates how it is possible to manage big ideas in small spaces.

The triptych concludes with accounts of how the characters’ political affiliations reveal how Edgar’s essentially deterministic view of human nature endures, despite the vicissitudes that his creations have experienced. Certain people are destined to support the Iraq War, others to vote for Brexit, and others to pay good money to hear Edgar complain about them.

Compline (Radio 3, Mondays) has made a welcome return after a successful Advent season last year (9 December). Last week, we heard a beautiful celebration from St Stephen Walbrook, in the City of London; and we now get more of a sense of the liturgical context into which chant and polyphony should fit rather than the presentation of a more or less random sequence of aural Ovaltine. Maybe Radio 3 could go one step further and credit the minister in charge.

With all that Latin, Compline might be part of the curriculum at The King Alfred School, Dudley: a new enterprise that promises a traditional “classical” education. In their account for So What You’re Saying Is (podcast from newcultureforum.org), the founders, Tom and Hayley Bowen, explain the choice of name, inspired by Alfred the Great’s defence of Christian civilisation against the Vikings. You can imagine, at this point, the conversation turning dark; but, instead, it provided an engaging insight into the mechanics of setting up a school with a singular vision.

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